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P-Box

Friday, October 8, 2010 0 comments
P as in Peskias, or P after the Pi-shaped (Π) kitchen that is the main architectural element in chef Christoforos’ Peskias’ cool northern suburb restaurant? (He just opened a second P-Box in Kolonaki, as yet to be reviewed.
P Box indeed is very small, as its enigmatic name implies, but  the flavors are big.
The best place to sit in the restaurant is around the kitchen on high stools (not made for a food lover’s derrier or a big, fat Greek one either!) where you get a pretty good view of what Peskias, one of Greece’s most celebrated chefs, is up to. The ergonomics are impressive in his little P-Box. Three people move around one another inside this tiny, visible kitchen, aware, of course, that it has, at all times, to look clean and neat. They move in harmony, dancing their own kitchen ballet each night, careful, literally, not to step on each other’s toes. A lot of the food is pre-cooked sous vide, a technique that Peskias has long been fond of and that serves him well here. One thing irked me a little: sous vide is food sealed in plastic bags and cooked long and slow in special ovens. A lot of what you see is the chef opening plastic bags and emptying contents into the skillets that occupy all of four small modern burners. (No flames flicker in P-Box’s kitchen.) But the plastic, lots of it, seemed counter-intuitive to me as a cook and consumer living in the age where such things seem more and more wasteful. Anyway, if the chef reads this he will probably assume the critic just needs something to say…
Mainly what I have to say is that the food is very good. How can a meal not promise to be excellent when the chef serves forth a heaping plate of spicy plate of beef hearts, sliced into strips and cooked to delicious intensity? Mr. P is a meat lover, as evinced in the quality of his jamon, which melts in the mouth without losing any of its aged nuance. He serves that with dice-sized little cubes of jelly made from Pedro Jimenez sherry and a dark, earthy cream of green apples. The “vromiko” (dirty in Greek) of the northern suburbs, the name of one dish, made me think of other things. What arrived was heart attack food of the most mischievous, delicious kind! A sausage cut up and cooked with greens and served with a whole soft-boiled egg in the center, just for fun. By watching a dozen of these leave the kitchen, I learned how to serve a soft boiled egg the Peskias way, by lobotomizing the top of the shell and pouring out the contents without breaking the yolk. It’s a popular dish. I adore the peinirli (dough boat) because it is poor man’s food dressed up for Sunday. Peskias’ is crunchy and buttery and filled with a superlative dose of foie gras and siglino (cured pork) (again, a double dose of heart attack food, just in case some of us meat lovers didn’t have enough!) Wow was that good.
The Cypriot ravioli filled with haloumi cheese come served in a delicate chicken broth, which is the best part of the dish. I wanted to try the other two pasta dishes, especially the pennes with gorgonzola, Limnos Muscat, pepper and lemon. With great difficulty I refrained. The eight main courses are nicely balanced: two pork dishes, two chicken dishes, tuna, grouper, shrimp and a vegetarian specialty that I plan to try next time: prasoselino me avgolemono (leeks and celery with egg-lemon sauce and pan-fried manouri cheese). It sounded so unusual.
The desserts were extremely good. I have a weakness for meringues. But P-Box’s, which is so clean and architectural and flavorful, is one of the best around. The cream inside is a coconut flavored pastry cream. Strawberries layered between it and the stiff meringues give it the brush stroke of irresistibility. The chocolate tart is pure heroin for this chocolate addict.
Peskias is in his element here. His humor comes out as he chats with guests and does his chef’s dance in the kitchen, preparing the food he loves. Clearly he seems to be enjoying himself and we his food. It’s a win-win situation!
p.s. The sommelier is excellent and the wine collection impressive. Oddly, P-Box aspires to be a kind off hybrid Greco-Spanish tapas bar; lovers of Spanish wines will find much to sip here.
Cuisine: modern
Athens Area: 
northern suburbsDecor-Atmosphere: small as a box, Π-shaped, with a visible kitchenService: good
Wine List: 
very good, Spanish wine collection impressive, excellent sommelierPrices: 40-50 euros a person
Address: 
11, Levidou str., Kifissia, tel. 210-8088818
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To Mageriko tis Nagias

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Nagia doesn’t accept kids and closes the kitchen at 10.30, despite her Ikarian DNA. (Ikaria, for those who don't know, is the Aegean island where time stops and most people live at night.) “When Ikarians show up, you know, late, I say, hey, look, let’s go somewhere. I am done in the kitchen.” 
I discovered this tiny taverna on a side street in Kallithea, about a 10-minute taxi ride from downtown Athens, thanks to a friend (not from Ikaria) who passed along the word from another friend who had just been there. It’s not completely unknown or even completely unpublicized, but it does have the distinct feel of a place off the radar screen despite the fact that the food here is delicious. The décor is very personal, a reflection of Nagia, who loves her space and takes pride in the character she exudes. I might describe it as filled with old photos and the patina of age, despite its three meager years on the Athens restaurant map, but it is filled with spirit that words can’t capture. There are about five tables in the whole 50-m square restaurant. The size of the space and the even tiner kitchen don't seem to make one dent in the consciousness of either the cook, her helper, the musicians who play here on occasion, or the crowd, a mix of intellectual types who seem to know what good food is all about. Damn good food, I’d say. Nagia is the perfect “crisis” restaurant, just right for these times. It brims unapologetically with all the values whose loss we are currently mourning:  honesty, value for money and, good, solid Greek food that happens to be very, very flavorful and original. Nagia serves forth Greek cuisine that is traditional in its approach but is also the result of a learned hand who knows just what’s right. My grandmother cooked soupies (cuttlefish), for example, but they were nothing like Nagia’s, which are patiently simmered with capers, green olives, and tomatoes and are absolutely down to earth and heavenly at the same time.
The menu consists of a large array of standards, such as feta ladorigani (with olive oil and oregano), horiatiki (village salad), meltizanosalata (eggplant salad), haloumi cheese on the grill, revithia sifneika (chick peas from Sifnos), which were thick and soothing and tres delicious, pork tigania (in a skillet) with mushrooms and mustard and more. 
We loved the pitakia (small pita bread) with goat’s cheese, honey and sesame. The stamnangathi (spiny chicory) salad was exceedingly fresh. She boils it as for horta (greens) and doesn’t serve it as a raw salad. One of my favorite dishes is the hilopites (pasta) with caramelized onions and xinomyzithra cheese, a take on an intoxicating pasta dish from the islands of Kassos and Karpathos, but with Nagia’s touch. I think the most delicious and regal dishes on this unique menu of classics and personalized tradition is the kritharaki (orzo) with smoked eel and fennel. It was such a sympatiko combination of flavors, at once very unusual and very soothing.
There wasn’t room to try more. But dessert did fit. In this case a cheese cake (Nagia’s own), with a dried fruit compote.
Cuisine: delicious home cooked Greek food with a personal flair
Athens Area: 
Kallithea
Decor-Atmosphere: 
a koutouki to calm us in the crisis
Service: 
friendly
Wine List: 
Tsipouro, ouzo, xyma krasi (house wine) and two organic wines, plus beers
Prices: 20 euro a person
Address: 
Evaggelistrias str. & 1, Galatias str., Kallithea, tel. 210 9517230
Nagia’s is the 21st century reincarnation of a great koutouki. And for all of the above, and more, our check came to 20 euros each.
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O Kipos tis Edem

Thursday, October 7, 2010 0 comments
Sometimes eating out for a living spawns the need for some plain old comfort food, the need to revert to much-loved restaurant dishes and familiar environs. I couldn’t think of a more apropos place to head for a meal to bridge the seasons and comfort my end-of-summer blues than the aptly named Kipos tis Edem (Garden of Eden) in Halandri, one of the most accessible and happening suburbs of Athens. If only the kipo (garden) part were a little more Eden like, this place would be so much better!
Nonetheless, this longstanding Lebanese restaurant serves all the classics from one of the Middle East’s most delicious cuisines and does so while proffering a water pipe for whoever wants to partake. Don't misunderstand: this is not a hookah bar! The décor speaks Arabic, too, in classic, of slightly heavy, shades of red, artisanal plates, copper briks and the like.
I come here for the things I have grown to like, from kiounefe (the cheese-filled kataifi-shredded wheat-pastry), to hummus served warm and topped with pine nuts. I can eat mountains of that, it’s so soothing. The Armenian salad is like our own horiatiki (village salad), but with a hot chili pepper added to it. The taboule is lively with the flavor of fresh chopped parsley and in-season tomatoes. I love the Arabic eggplant salad, with tahini, and the falafel, chick pea fritters, also served with tahini sauce (not as good as the ones I crave when on the go near Omonia, at Fat Boy, but just fine nonetheless). The stuffed grape leaves are not like our plump ones, but longer and thinner and lemony, and the tzatziki-like labne, a yogurt dip in other words, is a little runnier than what we Greeks are familiar with. The kibbe, meatballs in a bulgur crust, are crunchy and tasty but a little on the heavy side. The oil? Maybe it was the heat or maybe the desire to just eat less meat, but we stayed away from most carnivorous offerings, such as the various cooked lamb dishes and kebabs. There was still plenty to sate even the most diehard vegetarian, and plenty more for all you meat lovers out there who have yet to see the light!
Kipos to Edem is one of the oldest Lebanese places in Athens, still maintaining standards after all these years. That’s a good thing.
Cuisine: Lebanese
Athens Area: 
northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
classic Arabic, on the slightly heavy side
Service: 
good
Wine List: 
good
Prices: 
25-30 euros a person
Address: 
9, Konstantinou Paleologou str., Sidera Halandriou, tel. 210-6853580, 2106826105
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Oinothira

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Determining which restaurants one likes and doesn’t isn’t an exact science. Food, service, the glamour element (or lack thereof), atmosphere, decor and what I call the comfort zone—how good you feel in a place at a given moment in time and how easy it is to experience the same feeling upon subsequent visits—are all factors that go into the liking or not of a place in which we perform one of our most personal, fundamental activities, eating, of course.
I like a place called Oinothira, which is just a neighborhood taverna in a small, hidden plateia (square) behind a church off Eth. Makariou and Hrissostomou Smirnis streets in Kaisariani. We visited on a Monday night, and, with a slap in the face to the crisis, Oinothira was packed. Good sign. I like this place for two main reasons: it is quintessentially Athenian and it serves forth some very good fish and an excellent linguine with clams and garlic, the aromas of which waft straight to whatever part of our brains makes us instantly hungry.
The spinach-shrimp salad was decidedly elegant for such a low-key neighborhood place. Our roasted eggplant salad with red peppers and scallions was lovely. All the usual taverna suspects are on the menu, from fava (yellow split peas), skordalia (garlic dip), boiled seasonal vegetable salad, and tyrokafteri (spicy feta spread) to cheese fritters and bekri meze (pork with peppers and wine). A few stand out, among them: the feta-stuffed peppers on the grill and the seafood and bulgur appetizer fragrant with basil and lemon. I loved the simple but well-prepared grilled sardines but more than anything else I lapped up a filling plate of bavette with vongole (tiny clams) that was very good.
This is crisis food at its best with prices (around 15-20 euro a person) that obviously bring people out of the house on a hot Monday night. One caveat: Don't expect even the remotest air of glamour here; this place is just a down-and-dirty neighborhood taverna.
Cuisine: comfort food at its best
Athens Area: 
close to the center
Decor-Atmosphere: 
neighborhood taverna
Service: 
good
Wine List: 
ok
Prices: 15-20 euros a person
Address: 13, Ethn. Makariou str. & Hrissost. Smirnis, Kaissariani square, tel. 
210-7258428
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Alsoupoli, Y Gonia ton Gefseon

Wednesday, October 6, 2010 0 comments
A place that serves haute cuisine at taverna prices is always welcome, especially in these tough times, even if that means taking your passport and heading north across the border of Nea Ionia into the wilds of Alsoupoli. Fear not. It's just a 20-25-minute cab ride that won't cost more than 10 euro. Awaiting you there is Stathi, the chef-owner of Alsoupoli Y Gonia ton Gefseon, who holds court among a steady flow of devoted fans who come for the array of delicious fish carpaccios (salmon, gavro/anchovies among others, marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, a rainbow of peppers and more.) I loved his white taramosalata (fish roe salad), which looks a little like Rossiki (russian salad) thanks to the creaminess and the shredded carrots he adds. A seafood-vegetable pie was absolutely delicious, with a variety of greens that lent a sweetness that worked beautifully with the sweetness of the shrimp and other seafood.
The chef has a way of working with seafood and starch which hits notes of near perfection. My favorite dish was a dark, delicious mound of orzo, the color of amber, topped with a few shrimp. The orzo had absorbed all the briny esssence of the seafood and approached that deeply satisfying place the Japanese call umami. Another favorite was a molded dollop of wild and regular rice served on a shiny black plate, sprinkled with paprika like stardust. It was the most beautifully presented plate. A truffle risotto came out a little on the salty side and somewhat out of sync with everything else, but it was tasty. Two pieces of baked fagri/sea bream arrived a little while later, cooked perfectly and very fresh.
Stathi, in a starched black uniform and soldier’s posture, checks the tables of his diners regularly. He suggests dinner options even though there is a pretty large menu to chose from. His fish comes from a few key places around the Aegean, not least of which is my home island, Ikaria.
Alsoupoli cannot make any claim to aesthetic prowess. The «design» is about as simple as it gets, a sparse garden that’s lean and spare, clean, orderly, and neutral. This place is totally about the food without fanfare, a welcome return to solid values in an era that desperately needs them. That’s not to say that a few frivolous treats aren’t on hand, like the delicious balsamic-marinated strawberries with black pepper and a bottle or two of Moscato D’Asti.

Cuisine: haute without the fanfare
Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
simple, neutral
Service: 
good
Wine List: 
good
Prices: 
25-30 euro a person with wine
Address: 28 Messinias & Dodecanissou str., Alsoupoli, tel. 210-2777065



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PicNic Bar, Multi Ethnic Grill, Food & Swing

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What happens when an experienced bar owner, who happens to be, like moi, from the island of Ikaria, opens a small place with a friendly name and pretty good food on a quiet plateia (square) in Erythrea? A core of Kariotes and their vast network of mojito-loving friends, not to mention more than a few neighborhood locals, turn an otherwise sleepy plateia into a lively late-night scene.
PicNic Bar is more than a bar. The Food & Swing in the title refer to a full menu of treats with a decided Eastern flair. The music is perfect for folks my age (whose memories of youthful vices are still intact). The food is exactly on target for these times: inexpensive but hardly boring. Thai, Indian and Middle Eastern fragrances perfume most dishes. A Tandoori oven is the piece de la resistance in the kitchen, from which emerge fresh breads a la minute (naan) and a coral-colored Tandoori chicken that is very good. The chef, Mihalis Boskos, spent a decade in London, where he learned to love and cook many of the cuisines of Asia.
We sampled a very good hummus; generous and very tasty ground meat kebabs; chicken with Thai peanut sauce (sate), and various dishes with yogurt, which inspired me to rethink its many uses in the kitchen. The couscous and beets both have hints of orange.
Most starters and salads are in the 4-5 euro range and most main courses around 7-8 euros.
But it’s the energy I liked most here: relaxed but hip. Just what’s needed to awaken a quiet plateia (square) when most party animals head to the over crowded coast or crowded downtown Kifissia, which is nearby. Even the Greek Prime Minister is said to be a customer here.
Design: PicNic Bar is no high-tech mixologist’s court, but rather a comfortable, small place with a few Eastern brush strokes meant for folks who just want to enjoy that age-old pastime: sipping a drink with some friends and sharing a few plates of very decent, inexpensive food. Simple pleasures for complicated times.
Cuisine: multi-ethnic
Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: 
Eastern pot-pourri, simple and comfortable
Service: good
Wine List: 
Full bar with cocktails between 7 & 9 euro plus full wine list
Prices: 18-22 euros
Address: 
1, Nikolaou Plastira str., Nea Erythrea, tel
210 8077501
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Sushi Bar

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On a hot summer night, too lazy to make my way to the sea around this city, I head to the next best thing. That, for me, is the Sushi Bar, specifically in Neo Psychico, a northern suburb that happens to be near home.
The Sushi Bar has been around for years and while it’s not the crème de la crème of sushi in Athens, there is always something new and unusual on the menu. The place is busy, which is always a good sign in any restaurant that serves fish, for the faster they sell it, the fresher it is. Service is good and friendly and the selection includes something for everyone, from all-time classic combo plates to more fusion sushi that marries a world of influences in every bite.
I love the spicy tsipoura (snapper) ceviche: paper thin slices of farmed snapper in a hot, perky marinade. One of my favorite dishes is the maguro shogi, a mix of raw and cooked tuna, in yet another spicy sauce. The seared tuna “Nagao” with jalapeno pepper and coriander is a great example of the fusion of flavors that make the food on this globalized menu work. The salmon tartar puts a Japanese spin on the Scandinavian classic gravlax.
I always order a salad here and my favorite is the Nori, with seafood. The vegetarian rolls that I tried this time around were so light and summery. Try the cucumber, pineapple and mint or the asparagus-avocado-mint trio. The selection of other, more classic but also creative maki, is large enough to please a wide palette of tastes. The Mediterranean roll, another fusion fantasia, with tuna, sea bass, scallions, avocado and cucumber will cool off anyone on those sweltering Athens nights. Mayo, pineapples, herbs, jalapenos, and more from around the world come into focus in the rolls and other menu items at the Sushi Bar, making it fun to nibble here. But my all-time favorite nibble is the Dragon Eel, with smoked eel, avocado, and the restaurant’s “special” sauce.
A few Kirins or Saporos to wash all these nibbles down, and even the searing city summer nights seem cooler.
Cuisine: sushi classics and sushi fantasiasAthens Area: northern suburbsDecor-Atmosphere: modern
Service: 
good and friendlyWine list: enough of a selection for all tastes, including saki and Japanese beers
Prices: 30-45 euros
Rating: ***
Address: 
38, Georgiou Vlahou str., Neo Psyhikotel. 210-67 29 333


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La Cantina

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I can’t think of the last time I spent a night in a Kolonaki restaurant where the most expensive dish on the menu was 15 euro. Signs of the times are pointing to a reshuffling of the restaurant order. This is surely the year that all things haute will deflate like a failed soufflé and most things cheap and chic will attract hipsters between the ages of 20 and 70 who know a good deal when they taste one.
La Cantina, on the upper level of the Lemos Center, is a perfect example of such a place. The restaurant specializes in pizza (which is pretty good, on a cracker like crust), pasta (we tried the casarecce with eggplant, tomato, pecorino, and basil—a little underseasoned believe it or not, but better than most), more than a handful of salads and a few iconic Italian desserts. The setting is simple. A bar on one side of the floor serves dinner, too, but on tres uncomfortable seats and small tables; the restaurant seating is fine, the décor amicable and Kolonaki-rustic, with garlands of sun-dried vegetables and cinnamon sticks dangling as if from the rafters of someone’s Tuscan larder. The service is slow.
Try the bufala pizza or any of the other 9 choices, including a classic margarita and a lovely pie topped with fresh arugula and anchovies. The arugula salad with gorgonzola dolce and walnuts is tasty but a little over dressed. We opted for a salami turco for dessert, otherwise known as kormos, which came dressed to kill in a generous dousing of confectioner’s sugar. It was very chocolaty and very good, nothing like the stuff I mix together in haste at my kids’ birthday parties!
La Cantina is casual, sexy, simple and cheap. A meal for two, with half a carafe of house wine cost us 43 euro.
Cuisine: Italian, specializes in pizza
Athens Area: Kolonaki, downtown Athens (metro Panepistimiou or Syntagma)
Decor-Atmosphere: simple setting, amicable and rustic
Service: slow
Wine list: ok
Prices: 20-30 euros
Address: 28-30, Alopekis str., Kolonaki, tel. 
2107299133
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Kuzina

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Aris Tsanaklides is one of the best-known chefs in town and his talents extend to several restaurants, from the Pasteria chain to Pasaji, a meze-tapas restaurant behind the Grande Bretagne Hotel, to Kuzina. The latter is one of my favorite places both to take foreign friends and also to enjoy a night out over smart mezedes. It also happens to be one of the best places in town to people-watch, if you sit outside.
The restaurant is light and airy, decked out in whites and one of the first of a recent crop (over the last five years or so, that is) to be designed to remind one of a bakaliko (grocer's shop). Shelves are lined with jars of house-cured vegetables, spoon sweets etc., the kitchen is open and the best table inside is the long one that is located right in front of chef Tsanaklides’ burners.
On a recent visit, he had just changed the menu for the spring-summer.
I loved the stuffed vegetables “bougiournti” filled with spicy feta and apaki, the Cretan smoked pork. This is not a diet dish to be sure, dripping with salty melted cheese. It’s great with a glass of ouzo.
I like Tsanaklides’ approach to Greek meze traditions, which is to alter them just enough to add some playfulness without going too far. His Horiatiki (village salad) is a classic example: the only thing he does differently is to add chunks of Salonika Kouloura (bread ring from Salonika). The sweetness of the bread ring and the nuttiness of the sesame blend beautifully with the salad and provide…instant papara! Other classics such as fava are classics here with little intervention.
A menu signature is Kuzina's Agioritiki melitzanosalata (eggplant salad inspired from Mount Athos ), an open-faced, dramatically presented dish that looks and tastes great.
Tsanaklides has lived and worked in the Caribbean and Pacific Rim, and calls upon his years in Hawaii and elsewhere to inspire him when it comes to fish and seafood recipes. His pickled octopus, cut sushi-like, and served over a carpaccio of fennel bulb has the lightness of a dish one might be served on the deck of a pedigree yacht. The octopus loses its dense earthy feel and is transformed into something much finer. The pairing of this favorite Greek sea creature with fennel is not new, but Tsanaklides presentation is pleasingly fresh. His home cured lakerda (salted tunny), called by the very non-Greek sounding Hamachi, is also delicious.
The sea beckons but the land sates. So it goes that my personal favorite are his Greek sausage rolls, made with ground lamb and seasoned with sumac. He serves these spicy little knobs with a tangy yogurt sauce. Even on a hot spring day, it hit the right spot. 
Caveat: Sometimes the food is uneven. I've ordered many of these same dishes on various occasions and while most times they're very good, there have also been a few misses.
Cuisine: Greek meze traditions with a playful twist
Athens Area: center, view at Thissio and Acropolis (metro Monastiraki/train Thissio)
Decor-Atmosphere: light, airy, white touches, reminds of a bakaliko
Service: good
Wine List: good
Prices: 30-40 euros
Address: 9, Adrianou str., Thissio, tel. 2103240133
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