Wednesday, November 17, 2010 0 comments

Crisis time may not be the ideal season for visiting one of Greece’s finest and priciest restaurants, Varoulko, but a friend was taking me to dinner and offered to take me there. How could I say no? It had, indeed, been several years since I had savored the foods of one of my favorite chefs, Lefteris Lazarou.
Lazarou has stayed steady by Varoulko, the restaurant he began as a small, humble fish place in the boondocks of Piraeus and elevated to a temple of haute seafood cuisine, moving the restaurant once within Piraeus and then again during the Athens boom years to the Hotel Iridanos on Piraeus Street. Now, in addition to his role as chef, he has become the avuncular presence on one of this food season’s spate of food tv shows, Master Chef. The guests even try to emulate him in their own cooking “styles”.
TV has done him good, businesswise. On a Monday night, typically the toughest restaurant night in any city, Varoulko was packed and the crowd was decidedly casual, with more than a few 30-somethings in T-shirts. Is this the power of TV boosting business? I would think so.
The food, as always, was accomplished and refined and clearly portrayed a chef at the height of his technical skills. Some things worked better for me than others.
The first dish looked like a minimalist painting and paean to feminine-masculine balance: a neat straight row of overlapping slices of golden, fresh botargo on the left side of the dish countered the soft vanilla-cream sphere, roasted tomato bed and parmesan cracker on the right. Despite its beauty, for me the components seemed like mere neighbors with no real relation to one another.
The next dish though was redeeming and it was Absolute Lazarou at his Absolute Best: fish soup. Not just any fish soup but an intensely flavored dark reddish brown “essence” of the sea that came even more alive when you swirled a thin phyllo cigar into it and tasted the saffron cream in the bowl’s center. It was delicious and a siren’s call to his more sensual food of meals past.
Next came another great-to-look at dish that also had notes from the past but of a different order. Years ago, when the chef was cooking one summer near the marina in Piraeus, I sat in awe as he presented me with delicate strips of filleted sardine that had been adhered to a thin slice of bread and fried to perfection, all this served with eggplant cream. It’s a dish I’ve seen reverberate all over the city by others, but found it again on his current menu albeit “gourmet-ified.” Bream replaced the sardines, the eggplant cream stayed on, and the whole thing was tied together, sort of, with a raspberry sauce. It was great to look at but a little odd. I am not a great fan of confusing dessert flavors with savory flavors, but I know this is a trend now.
We loved the fish keftedes with Lazarou’s barbecue sauce, a fun, easy, comfortable dish that countered the austerity of some of the other plates.
Our meal ended with another redrawing of the boundaries between sweet and savory. Dessert. This was a delicious, smooth, richly flavored chocolate olive oil mousse with vanilla ice cream, served with a very salty cracker and an arugula leaf.
Maybe I just didn’t get it.
Cuisine: creative haute cuisine (fish and seafood) by a well-known chef
Athens Area: 
Athens neighborhood
60-80 euros per person
80, Pireos 2105228400
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Ta Tria Asteria (Three Stars)


I had almost forgotten the pleasures of a good kebab—not something I, personally, indulge in too often—until a recent visit to one of Athens’ oldest (and best) kebab places, Ta Tria Asteria, reminded me of how delicious one could be. I remember first visiting this place, on Plastira square in Nea Smyrni, sometime around the mid 1980s. That a restaurant can change generational hands from parents to kids, renovate so that it looks young and fresh and modern, and yet serve forth the same high-quality food consistently well for more than two decades is a feat worth lauding. I can only think of a very few such restaurants in Athens.
No surprise then that the place was packed. Despite that, the service was excellent, so much so that, when we got lost after making a wrong turn in the area, they actually sent a kid on a motorbike to come and guide us to the restaurant.
The room is understated and contemporary, done up in beiges and woody browns, with pictures on the walls, a neutral design that somehow conveys warmth.
The menu is as large today as it was in 1986, a kind of who’s who of mezedes and kebabs with something for everyone. A waiter still brings out a large tray of meze offerings, appealing to both eye and belly.
We started with an excellent, very basic politiki melitzanosalata (eggplant salad) that was dense and smoky, with not a trace of bitterness and no seeds. Next, we sampled another eggplant dish: thick slices of fried eggplants, with skin, each piece so thick it was like a little cup. These were topped with what is described on the menu as ketchup. Could it be? Maybe. The sauce was very plain and basic and could have used some flavor. I liked the idea and the presentation. Next, we bit into triangular slices of lahmatzoun, thin pieces of baked pita topped with a dry, flavorful ground meat mixture. The lahmatzoun was very good, especially if you sprinkled it with some of the dried tomato flakes, raw onion and lime that are on the plate. A small plate of spicy red pepper and tomato salad came next, which was terrific.
I NEVER eat kokoretsi (skewered, grilled mixed innards) unless I have personally known the animal who gave away his innards for our pleasure. Here it’s a house special and I felt compelled to try it. No regrets. It was clean and as gentrified as kokoretsi can be. I did, however, save my favorite, the buttery, crisp pita kaisarias (pie with pastourma) that I remember as slightly larger from years ago, as the last of the mezedes. It was a tiny bit underbaked, but delicious.
We moved with full awareness of how many calories we’d already consumed onto the main course kebabs, opting for the kasserlit kebab, a long twist of ground meat and kasseri cheese wrapped around a skewer, grilled, then slipped off. This was garlicky and tangy and wonderful, especially with the standard side of raw onion and roasted tomato. The fine bulgur-tomato pilaf that comes with it is tasty.
Could we leave without cutting into a crisp round of shredded wheat pastry (kataifi) hiding a layer of mild cheese, sprinkled with pistachios and doused in an aromatic syrup? No way. I am talking about the kunefe, which I can still remember from 20 years ago because the first time I ever had it was at Tria Asteria. It’s even better today.
Three stars for The Three Stars! Bravo.
Cuisine: Some of the best kebabs in town and a whole array of politika specialties 
Athens area: Nea Smyrni
Decor-Atmosphere: fresh and modern, warm and neutral
Service: excellent
Wine List: good
Prices: 20-30 euro per person
Address: 1, Melitos str.
 & 77 Plastira str., Nea Smyrni, tel.: 2109358134

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The Prime Grill

Dinner with my daughter, all of 17, is becoming increasingly more interesting. We actually set out for a new burger place in N. Psychiko, a northern suburb, but upon parking outside and looking in, we had little desire to go. Instead, we ended up across the street at the Prime Grill, on what has become a restaurant-heavy crossroads (Places include: Piperia, Far East, a good souvlaki place, the burger joint, within 100 meters of each other). I hadn’t been here in a few years and was glad to come back, for a decent steak and a pretty good burger.
     Prime Grill is one of many steak houses that opened in Athens when the country still felt like it was on an up-hill course, when meat, the de facto food of affluence, was on everyone’s mind! Greeks still lean toward the carnivorous, but maybe with slightly less frequency now that lentils have become part of the working-man’s weekly diet again.
     Prime Grill has a simple, accessible menu. We liked the sautéed mushrooms, which were light (translation: no cream!)  and flavored with tomato and tarragon. They were cut chunky and cooked al dente. Other appetizers included the increasingly talagani, the popular, mild cheese from Messinia in the Peloponnese, which is best served grilled; grilled haloumi and vegetables; keftedakia (meatballs), and pretty good Greek fries, a little heavy on the salt but crunchy.
     I really was in the mood for a burger, a good representation of which is not the easiest thing to find in Athens. I ordered the barbecue burger (other options were the texas double, a pizza burger with tomato and parmesan, and the New York, with cheese and bacon). The bbq burger had bacon, too, lots of it, which definitely helped give the meat the necessary fat to make it juicy. (I removed it before eating, conscious of my diet, heart, and middle-aged middle.) The sauce was commercial bbq sauce, but the whole thing was just fine. My 17-year-old, whose appetite is impressive, managed to savor every last bite of veal chops (brizolakia apo moscharaki), which were cooked as she likes them, medium. (No one in this food critic’s family dares eat a well-done steak!) We shared a spinach-arugula salad, which was a little limp and very wet from too much dressing. The house red was quite nice. I refused to buy the kid a beer, though!
     All in all, we had a pretty good meal here, low-key, medium priced, and totally competent. The service was friendly and accommodating.

Cuisine: burgers and grilled meat
Athens area: northern suburbs
Decor-Atmosphere: simple
Service: friendly and accommodating
Prices: 25-35 euro a person
Address: 46, Adrianiou str., Neo Psychiko, tel. 2106753934
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