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Thalassinos

Friday, May 14, 2010 3 comments
Thalassinos is well-known fish and seafood taverna in Tzitzifies, behind the Onassis Heart Hospital. Its been the darling of gourmandes in this town for a little more than two decades. Prices here have remained steady over the past few years, but fish and seafood are dear. Nonetheless, for the quality of the raw ingredients and the friendly, accommodating service, I have always felt that Thalassinos is a good deal. Lately, though, I’ve seen a slight downturn in what the kitchen prepares. I don’t know if it’s a phase. I recall better meals here, where the zeitgeist was utter simplicity. Some of the dishes we sampled on a recent visit were a bit muddled. Nonetheless, what is always the piece de resistance here is fresh shell fish and the all-Greek fish, grilled and super fresh. Other recommended dishes include: plump medium-sized Greek sardines, cooked up Salonika style, on the grill and sprinkled with raw onion and boukovo (hot pepper flakes), perfectly prepared; roasted chunky eggplant salad, with specks of green pepper and tomatoes; a potato-smoked herring salad with chopped carrots; rice and octopus salad, with a briny aftertaste that makes it perfect for ouzo; spanakorizo (spinach rice pilaf) mixed with bits of shrimp and raisins, served with a drizzling of saffron-orange sauce; seafood dolmades stuffed with rice, raisins, pine nuts and a medley of chopped seafood. Dessert is simple at Thalassinos: signature chocolate soufflé and shredded wheat pastry (kataifi) filled with cheese and topped with mastiha-favored ice cream are the best things to order. Cuisine: all the fruits of the sea. Famous fish taverna, with imaginative strokes and great ingredients. Decor: cozy and comfortable, bright room with less clutter and a summery lightness, beige walls, shutters and woodwork a seafoam green. Service: Excellent. Wine list: Excellent. house wine, Greek wines, beer, ouzo. Prices: 35-50 euro per person. Address: Irakleous and 32, Lysikratous str., Tzitzifies, Tel: 210-9404518
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Vinoterra Resto & Cava

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It was one of those nights when reviewing a restaurant seemed a lot more like a chore than a pleasure. Our choice for the evening was either a new pasta place on Panormou or a wine-bar on Marinou Antypa in Herakleion. I live north and didn't want to stray too far from home. Wine Bar it was, and so we discovered to our pleasant surprise a place with good food, a laid back atmosphere, a happening bar filled with civilized people sipping bulbous glasses of wine, and decent prices. Vinoterra.
The space is simple and modern. A glass panel in the front of the restaurant makes it feel almost like a cafeteria or café and less like a restaurant and the modern but neutral furnishings bring it close to nondescript. The design could have more character. It falls into that category of cosmopolitan bland. 
I liked the small menu. That’s almost always a sign that the kitchen is careful, has thought things through and decided upon a few offerings that are done well. That is certainly the case here. One thing that needs improvement is the timing, not only between courses but also between the wine service and food service. Our first plate had arrived but the sommelier, who was knowledgeable and accommodating, had not yet come to the table to take our order. Then, wanting a second glass of an Aivali Nemea (a red from the Peloponnese), which I had never tried, we had to practically flag him down from across the room.
The first thing that came to the table was our salad, a delicious medley of escarole, endive, hazelnuts and chestnuts. This might sound ironic, but salads are often one of the worst things in a Greek restaurant, something literally tossed together, drenched in dressing, and pushed out of the kitchen. Not this one. It was made with care, beautifully balanced, and delicious.
My reviewer’s heart pushed me to try something that went against all my culinary instincts, a risotto with sour cream. But the waiter assured us it was really good, and I trusted him. My instincts were wrong (not about the waiter but about the dish). It was, indeed, very good. Surprisingly so. He mixed the dollop of sour cream into the vegetable risotto at our table, then served it—a delicious, creamy, lusciously tart but comforting dish of pillowy risotto. What a nice change from the porcini-studded, truffle-oil-drizzled, goop that comes out of more kitchens than I care to remember. This was a high starch night. Our next dish was a ragout of beef, broccoli and pecorino, woven among the slurpy pieces of gaganelli pasta, something like the twisted Cretan schioufichta pasta, if that means anything to more traditional Greeks. It was very tasty. I wish there had been more cheese in the plate. But we lapped it up like hungry children, finding it hard to resist almost any pasta dish.
A more serious dish of sea bass (lavraki) over selinoriza (celery root) purée was also lovely. The lavraki “blackened” had a sweet edge to it, and the selinoriza purée with saffron sauce acted as a lovely foil.
We sipped away at various wines by the glass, and mulled over dessert, which was an orange tart with chocolate ice cream. I liked the intense flavor of the orange and that combo—chocolate and orange—is one of my favorites.
Someone in that kitchen can cook!
Cuisine: Small and elegant, with Mediterranean touches
Athens Area: Herakleion
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Modern, sleek, a little impersonal, but with a happening bar scene made for civilized adults
Service: 
A little disorganized and a little slow, but accommodating and polite
Wine List: 
Excellent (The restaurant is actually part of the cava next door)
Prices: 
25 -30 euro a person without wine
Address: 
74-76 Marinou Antypa str., Neo Herakleion, tel.: 210-2792100 
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Armolia

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A new fish meze place about five minutes from my house is always a welcome thought and the Halandri square, where Armolia is located, has become a hot and happening restaurant scene over the last 2 years.
Armolia is designed to look like an old bakaliko (grocery). This is a trend, not only in places around the square but in general around town, the answer, maybe, to our need for familiarity, comfort and the air of economy. How expensive can a neighborhood grocery store be, in other words?
Armolia falls into the category of places that have opened in droves these last two years, places where someone thought through the design a bit and yet still serve familiar food. You won't find foams, gels, or hunger-inducing hauteur here.  The food is simple and most of what we had was quite competent, each plate with its own little twist. People seemed to be having a good time all around us, sipping their ouzaki or house wine and finding some relief from the stress of the daily news.
I liked the beet salad with walnuts, a filling, nicely portioned dish with a vegetable I adore. Trying to keep my silhouette from exploding, I stayed away from dishes like the baked potato with cheese but did go for the fries with grated kefalograviera cheese, which are excellent, thin, crisp and tasty, the way a sinful, starchy fry should be. The mushrooms in a skillet with wine (pleurotus mushrooms to be exact) were lovely. The sauce is tasty and pleasantly winey, but the touch that makes this dish is the strips of pita bread that are crisped (fried?) and added to the otherwise soft mushrooms in a nice contrasting note. The fried zucchini don’t work for me here. Too thin and too soggy and nearly burnt. Neither did the walnut skordalia that I ordered in the side. This needed punch (and salt).
There is a whole range of fish and seafood mezedes and main course to choose from, including all the classics on the gill, several saganakia, steamed shellfish of varying type etc. I was pleasantly surprised with the stuffed kalamari (squid), a dish I usually don’t like. Here it is filled with a tangy bulgur mixture. The squid was nicely cooked and the pan sauces just right for bread. The octopus with mavrodafni wine is a dish I have tried in several better versions around town. What was missing here was the raison d’être for the sweet wine—if you don’t let it cook down a little and turn somewhat syrupy the dish is ordinary. Basically it’s a classic stifado with sweet wine instead of dry. Never one to reject a melted cheese dish, I did try the grilled Chios Mastello – I forgot to mention that the cuisine of Chios plays prominently in various dishes. It was nice, finished with a tangy tomato sauce.
Halandri is getting ever more crowded with cozy little places like Armolia that offer decent value for money, an outing that is affordable, food with a little twist that isn’t totally over the top, and a comfortable, well-appointed room that people feel good sitting in. Have they reinvented the wheel? No? Are these the times for such reinventions? Probably not. So, sip that ouzo and enjoy a decent meze before we all default…

Cuisine: pleasant, light, styled like an old bakaliko
Athens Area: Halandri, northern suburbs 
Decor-Atmosphere: pleasant, light, styled like an old bakaliko (grocery store) 
Service: helpful and accommodating even in the Friday night rush
Wine List: OK
Prices: 25-35 per person
Address: Central Halandri Square, tel.: 210-6856279
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Dal Professore

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I wanted comfort food. It had been a stressful week. The idea of a soothing glass of red wine, a bowl of steaming pasta, some garlicky concoction from our Italian neighbors and the company of a good friend led us to a place I had been hearing about and had actually visited a few years ago: Dal Professore.
This Italian trattoria is situated in an old house in Maroussi, pretty much in the commercial heart of Athens' overcrowded northern suburb. When I had gone a few years back the meal was less than I had hoped for. But a different chef and the unabridged praise of more than a few trusted food friends led me back there. Unfortunately for a second time I was less than thrilled.
It was as much an attitude problem as a food issue. Our waiter was extremely difficult to understand and when we asked for details he seemed annoyed. It had been raining all week, so when he said that the seafood is always fresh I asked him how that could be when the weather has been so bad that fishermen don't go out. OK, maybe that was an unfair or a loaded question, one in which a food critic goes looking for trouble, but he responded nastily and that set me on guard.
We had the Romana salad, which is described as red radicchio, which led me to imagine the deliciously bitter real Italian radicchio that I love so much. Instead it was a simple lettuce salad with a very heavy, creamy dressing. We ordered it without the grilled chicken. When the bill came, I couldn't tell if we were charged the full amount or not for it.
A pizza marguerita, described as topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and basil came out without the basil, which I had imagined as velvety soft leaves perfuming this classic. It was ok, even basil-less. But the waiter insisted it was “In the sauce,”. A Vitello tonnato, one of my favorite Italian antipasti, made of paper-thin slices of beef carpaccio and creamy tuna sauce fell flat on this tongue, with none of the perkiness such a contradiction of flavors and ingredients is supposed to bring.
Then came our main course. The waiter had tempted us with a gnocchi special, on a night when the restaurant was occupied by us and three other tables. When we decided to order it he said it had already been taken. It was a one-order special? Hmmm….We opted for another classic, homemade tagliatelle with sausage stew and saffron. The stew was hardly a stew, but rather a dry gathering of decent sausage slices hiding among the folds of pasta. As for the saffron, we assume it was hiding out somewhere with the basil. It was hard to taste.
Dessert: The classics here, too. We went for the amaretto panna cotta, which was, indeed, redolent of bitter almond, which I love, but was a bit dense and stodgy from an oversupply of gelatin.
Have I come down hard? Maybe. Each review is the reflection of an experience. What can I say? I just described mine.

Cuisine: Trattoria classics 
Athens Area: Maroussi, northern suburb 
Decor-Atmosphere: Cozy old house 
Service: Snotty and borderline rude 
Wine List: Sympatico 
Prices: 35-45 euro a person 
Address: 47 Dionyssou & Hatziantoniou str., Maroussi, tel.: 210-6149000

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Bakalogatos

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How is that some restaurants manage to serve very good food in very pleasant surroundings for very good prices, while others, often times serving similar fare just don’t understand that value for money is where it’s at these days. Bakalogatos ("The Grocery Cat"), a quaint little restaurant in multi-ethnic Kypseli, right on the central drag of Fokionos Negri, definitely falls into the first category. One recent visit with a small group of friends left us filled to the core on delicious, Kassos-island-inspired home cooking but hardly empty in the pocket. The bill came to about 20 euro for each of us and we ate very well.
Getting to Fokionos by car and parking in the neighborhood could be a bit of an issue, but an extra 8 or 10 euros handed over to one of the nearby garages still makes this place a great value. Alternatively, you can walk from the Victoria train station.
The place is designed casually and the energy is light and happy. The contemporary country look is filled with whites in various shades. Despite the small room, it seems spacious.
The menu is organized in an unusual way: Apo to Bakaliko (From the Grocer’s), Saganakia, Tiganies, Patates (Potatoes), Kassos specials, mezedakia se piatakia (meze plates), salads and vegetable dishes, pilafs, pasata, and chef’s suggestions are the categories one has to choose from. There is always one traditional Greek savory pie as a daily special.
One of the most memorable dishes were the excellent and surprisingly juicy keftedes (meatballs), a simple dish granted, and maybe one that’s hard to get excited by, especially for us jaded restaurant critics, but these were unique in that they were juicy and crisp all at once. The tiny, bite-sized Kassos dolmades, filled with a ground meat and rice mixture, were delicious. We liked the grilled, mild Chios mastelo cheese, a simple meze nicely presented and generously portioned. Some dishes were more artful than others, among them a napoleon-like fried eggplant dish in which layers of crisp-skinned eggplant were interspersed with a dollop of katiki cheese. The eggplants with yogurt lacked that Anatolian excessiveness, but they were good. A plate of roasted oregano-flavored potatoes were tasty but a little cold; The fries, though, were excellent. I loved the good-quality sausages on the grill, too. One of the night’s real winners, by far, though, was the giouvetsi with shrimp. The flavor was rich and round, the shrimp fresh and deliciously briny with a waft of the sea still evident. I have to contrast this dish with one for which I had high expectations but was somewhat let down: the Kassiotikes makarounes. This is a local dish that, when made well, is an irresistible play of opposites: sweet caramelized onions, sour sitaka yogurt-like cheese, and sating homemade pasta. Here the dish was dull. It was the only thing I found wanting on the menu.
There is a lot more to choose from at Bakalogatos, from classic Greek regional pasta dishes and pilafs, to a large array of starters and the chef’s suggestions, of course, which include pork with thyme and limes (moscholemona), pork loin with porcinis and red wine, and another pork loin on the grill, cooked with tomato, manouri cheese and arugula.
These sound like definite reasons to return to this cute little place that gets the recipe right: very good food, nice environs, affordable prices.



Cuisine: Very good Greek regional classics, with an emphasis on Kassos cuisine
Athens Area: Kypseli 
Decor-Atmosphere: Cozy and casual
Service: Friendly
Wine List: Limited but acceptable
Prices: Just right for these dire times – about 15-20 euro per person
Address: 72, Fokionos Negri str., Kypseli, tel. 210 821 6598

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