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To Ouzeri tou Mitsou

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 0 comments
Can misery be fun? That is the question when you set out for an Italian restaurant of some repute in downtown Halandri, a well-known suburb north of Athens, on a rainy Wednesday night, after having called just a few days earlier, only to discover that in the course of 72 hours said restaurant has gone out of business. Hmm. Where to go with two girlfriends for a final tipple and some tidbits before we all separate for Christmas? It was then that I remembered the lines, out the door, indeed, on most Saturdays when I happened to pass by a tiny hole in the wall right behind the main church on restaurant row in Halandri. The place: to Ouzeri tou Mitsou, a narrow, old-fashioned taverna with old-fashioned clientele: older guys with worry beads and retsina and cigarettes clustered in small groups, a few oddly modern couples, replete with pierced body parts and tatoos and chemical hair, and then us, three young-at-heart middle-aged ladies out for an easy meal and some wine-induced cheer.
I know this sounds strange, but this little ouzerie is, well, pleasantly miserable! I mean sooo simple and basic, with service and a menu to match, recalling the innocent, taverna-stuffed days of my youth. The food was fine. Decent fava (yellow split pea puree) come served warm (how to tell decent fava: it should be creamy and not pasty, and, yes, it is best served slightly warm). A classic plate of boiled zucchini came boiled to just the right point where al dente meets softness. The saganaki (fried cheese) was totally old-world style, encased in a thick batter before it hits the fryer, properly oozing within, with no extraneous “creative” additions that sometimes embellish but also sometimes mar the pure pleasure of indulging in artery-clogging food. Horta (greens) came as horta should: soft and pillowy and deep green, with a good dousing of our national treasure, olive oil, generously soaking it. Lemon on the side, of course.
We had the bakaliaro skordalia (fried cod with garlic dip), which was not an abridged version! Plenty of garlic in a dense, textural bread-based skordalia (garlic dip), the old-fashioned kind. A plate of fried small shrimp that were plucked out of the waters of Evia earlier in the day or week were more medium-sized than bite-sized and so needed to be purged of their heads before eating.
Mitso’s Ouzerie is a simple, rustic place, fitting, perhaps for these times, when we still want to go out, but just can’t afford to! I am beginning to long for the foamy days of yore when fava was infused with truffle oil and bakaliaros-skordalia was just a name open to interpretive cooking!
Cuisine: classics meze dishes to accompany with ouzo
Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor: narrow, old-fashioned taverna, a bit rough around the edges but pleasantly retro
Service: ok
Prices: 12-15 euros a person
Address: 
8, Eleftheroton square, Halandri, tel.: 210 6840229
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ManiMani

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We had guests in town and wanted to go somewhere fashionably…inexpensive. ManiMani turned up on my radar screen, a place I’ve wanted to return to after visiting it when it first opened a few years ago. I am always interested in places that showcase the cuisine of a particular region, in this case the dry, majestic southern Peloponnese, known for its exquisite olive oil, meagre but essential cooking, and tough locals.

There is definitely a lot more from the Mani on the menu today than there was a few years back. Singlino (cured pork in olive oil), talagani (a lovely grilling cheese from Messinia, in the Pelop.), various local pastas, and more are among the ingredients that crop up all over the menu. Orange and lemon, so important in the flavor palette of the southern Peloponnese, grace many dishes. The space, an old house near the Acropolis Museum, is lovely, well preserved, and simply but pleasantly appointed, the kind of space most of us can easily fantasize living in.
Despite the numerous things in its favor, ManiMani disappointed us a little. The main reason has to do with where the emphasis is in the kitchen and on the menu: making the plates look impressive but not tending as carefully as possible to the actual flavors in each dish. A trilogy of cold dips (fava (yellow split pea puree), tyrokafteri (spicy cheese dip), melitzanosalata (eggplant salad)) comes in annoyingly small portions. Ditto on the trilogy of saganakis (fried cheese), one with haloumi cheese, one with talagani cheese, one with manouri cheese. There were four of us, and it wasn’t enough to go around. Looked good, though! The homemade ravioli filled with chard, myronia(wild chervil), kafkalithres (Mediterranean hartwort) and served with feta cheese sauce seemed anemic. I expected a really flavorful filling and a pungent sauce and what I got were a few insipid half-moons barely filled with greens and a sauce where the cheese had either been left out or was so little that it was indiscernible. The greens salad with a round of grilled manouri cheese, served as an upright cylinder, looked great and tasted fine.
We ordered three mains. The rooster with noodles was very salty, and that noted from a palate that adores salt. I liked the fried salt cod a lot, although I thought there was a little too much going on on the plate between the bed of greens and the various inter-flowing sauces in different colors. The lavraki (sea bass) with fennel cream was perfectly pan-seared, crisp and tender; the fennel cream could have had more personality.
We skipped dessert but indulged in two bottles of wine.
A little refinement is what ManiMani needs. If they achieve that, customers will come a-running, mani-mani (in greek this expression means quickly)…


Cuisine: Specialties and inspirations from the Southern Peloponnese
Athens Area: Athens neighborhood (Acropolis metro station)
Decor: simple, cozy, Greek
Service: good
Wine List: good
Prices: 25-35 euro a person
Address: 10, Falirou str., Koukaki, tel.: 2109218180

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Hatskar

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Cheap but not chic, delicious but not beautiful. These are the words I’d use to describe Hatskar, a small family restaurant in the northern suburb of Maroussi that serves very good, homemade Armenian dishes.
The waiter calls out to the chef after I ask him a question: “Mama, what’s in the pasous dolma (bean-stuffed pickled cabbage)?” Mama, the chef, is a kerchief-clad, plump very good cook who personally brings over the dish. We enjoy every bit of it.
Hatskar refers to a cross carved into wood. The restaurant is small, bright, and very plain. If there were a few cozier touches and a little less light the space would be much more pleasant and would do the food, which is delicious, justice. If it looked better, I'd even recommend a taxi ride north, for those adventurous and curious diners who want to taste the ethnic places that local love.
The menu is filled with dishes that were new to me. For example, lahmatzoun, the paper-thin small round pies typically topped with spicy ground meat, here come in the well-known version but also in another with spinach. The hatzapouri is an open-faced cheese and yogurt pie, which was very good. I loved the garlicky ground-walnut-filled eggplant rolls, which were so filling it seemed they had meat in them. The pickled cabbage dolmades filled with mixed beans came as two large rolls in a light tomato sauce. They were very good. So was the Armenian chicken salad, with mushrooms, pomegranate seeds and walnuts, dressed in a mayonnaise sauce. It was surprisingly light. The Armenian kebab, ground meat pressed around a long skewer, came with ample raw onions and chopped tomatoes and a generous portion of the very thin flatbread that also came in the beginning, with a spicy red pepper dip.
I don’t know if I would come back here to enjoy a lingering meal but I’d certainly order out because the food is real, homemade, delicious, and cheap. The Armenian wine we tried, Areni, wasn’t exactly the Caucasus Cabernet, as our enthusiastic waiter promised! Sip a beer instead.
Cuisine: tasty homemade Armenian dishes
Athens Area: northern suburbs
Decor: small family restaurant, bright and plain
Service: ok, the waiter was very enthusiastic!
Cava: ok
Prices: 12-15 euros per person
Address: 40, Irinis Ave., Pefki, tel.: 210-8064770, 210-6126823

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Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino

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If your'e near the Acropolis and wise enough to steer clear of most of the area's tourist traps, then head to this cozy little Italian place that local Athenians love. The last time I visited this restaurant was with a good girlfriend many years ago. It had just opened, she had just gotten back from Italy, and we were both in the mood for a long talk over something easy, with good wine to match. The most recent visit was also with a good girlfriend, neither of us having just returned from pasta land, but dreaming about going.
Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino, right around the corner from the Acropolis train stop, is the perfect restaurant for the times: very reasonably priced, warm and cozy, just the right size, relatively quiet, with a menu that is mostly pasta and other favorite Italian fare. Why doesn’t anyone every get tired of eating Italian food?
The waitress is also the owner, a sweet, enthusiastic guide to the best things on the menu. The service was a tad slow. “Everything is made to order,” was the excuse. Everything we ordered was worth waiting for: An interesting bruschetta (grilled bread) topped with mozzarella, anchovies, tomatoes, oregano and olive oil, worked, despite what I thought might be disparate ingredients; the curly red lettuce salad with fresh mushrooms came embellished deliciously with pine nuts, raisins, parmesan and a tasty dressing; The spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and pepper was perfectly seasoned, a simple dish that speaks tomes about the good Mediterranean Diet, with just the right amount of heat to satisfy this spice-loving palate. My dining companion went for one of the specials, spaghetti like me but with a delicious sauce made with salt cod and tomatoes. Dessert was a choice of classics like tiramisu and crème brulee and more. We opted for a light, lovely lemon cream, the perfect end to an easy, comfortable dinner. Wines: the list is small and well-priced, with a handful of good Italian wines, too, including a Valpolicella and a Barbera d’Alba. We went with the restaurant’s own bottled Nemea, a classic red from the Peloponnese, which was just fine. 
Cuisine: mostly pasta
Athens Area: downtown Athens (Acropolis metro station)
Décor: Cozy, a little dark
Service: Friendly but a little slow
Cava: Small but good
Prices: 25-35 euro a person
Would I come back: Si, si, si
Address: 13, Porinou str., Makrygianni, tel.: 2109211801
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