This business of reviewing restaurants usually sounds more glamorous than it is. Most of the time, people who eat for a living end up eating a lot of very mediocre meals and a few very good ones in any given year. This year, 2011, got off to a great start for me with a visit to Athens’ newest haute dining spot, Fuga, which belongs to the Athens Concert Hall and is perched on the top of the hill right behind Hall.
Getting up there is either a climb or an elevator ride through the labyrinthine catacombs beneath the Concert Hall. When you finally find your way, the room, simply and elegantly appointed in wood and glass, makes you feel somehow light. It’s the view, of course, overlooking Athens, the modern city. At night, with the Athenian hills silhouetted in the background, and lights flickering everywhere, it’s easy to forget this is the same Athens of suffocating strikes and civil strife. Gravure-like projections of classical composers and a gravure-like wall remind us, like its name, a play on fugue, is part of the grand Concert Hall (Megaron Mousikis in Greek).
For a time, before coming, I had a fixed idea that this very iconic space overlooking moderns Athens needed to serve modern Greek food. That was before I sipped the first taste of a warm carrot soup studded with rosemary croutons and indulged wholeheartedly in one of the most delicious meals I have had in a long time here. The chef, Pantaleo de Pinto, is a protégé of 2-star Michelin chef Andre Berton. The food achieved a level of artfulness rarely seen in this city while maintaining its earthy Mediterranean roots. Much on Fuga’s menu is a paean to Italian classics, but nothing wehad was even remotely cliché, either in presentation or flavor.
I feared the buffalo milk mozzarella-tomato-basil trio would be pedestrian, since this dish now belongs to the rank of international food. What arrived at our table was a visual garden of delights: mozzarella, tender and milky, cut into small wheels, each one with a tasty core of jelled tomato. The basil sauce spread out like a star beneath the rolls. A sprouting of lettuce and other tender salad leaves at the top gave the dish the aura of a flower that had just bloomed. The whole thing was very subtle and soothing on the palate. The warm cod ad steamed vegetable salad had an entirely different composition. This came like a game board with pieces of zucchini, broccoli and more upright on the plate, softened by bite-sized chunks of perfectly salted fresh cod. We poured a little more olive oil over it, morphing it into a more “Greek” dish that way. The vitello tonato, so often heavy handed and stodgy, was another salute to the breeziness that the room itself inspires, despite the earth-water duet on the plate. The veal came in two rounds of perfectly cooked, very tender loins, crunchy with a bit of sea salt; the tonato was a dollop of sauce on the plate. One caper berry had to suffice for the two of us (I got it!). Strips of crisped celery were woven into a stack on the plate.
All the starches beckoned to be sampled, so we had to chose: the rigatoni Amatriciana and the classic risotto Milanese. Both were superb. The risotto, served in a shallow bowl with a wide lip, was the color of wet marigolds, swirled with veal juice which added a discernible depth of flavor (not that the risotta wasn’t rich and perfectly al dente to begin with). The Amatriciana was playful: served forth with each piece of perfectly cooked rigatoni upright in a filled circle on the plate, wrapped in sauce, with three strips of crisped pancetta, all pink and white stripes, jutting out like flags. I wish there were more pasta on the plate, especially for the 18 euro price tag, because it was delicious.
We shared a main course, the osso buco, which comes osso-less! Oddly, I thought this was the weakest dish because deboning deflated the anticipation of drama that is inherent in more typical presentations. The potato puree that accompanies the osso buco is something I aspire to in my own kitchen: so smooth it’s almost liquid, but with not even a hint of gumminess.
Next, came dessert: the panna cota is a study in contradictions but opposites, after all, attract. The cream was silky with evident body, served in a parfait-like glass, and topped with a crunchy granita of frozen espresso. I couldn’t get enough of either. In the chocolate pave I thought the contrasts were a little untamed, the dense opulence of a delicious chocolate ganache whipped by a very tart mango sorbet. I wanted more harmony.
One detail that remained with me all night: just as heels do make a woman’s legs prettier, so do proper plates give an aesthetic boost to the food. Fuga’s plates are all white and expansive but in a way that embraces each dish.
Athens Area: Centrally located, just above the Megaron Mousikis (Athens Concert Hall)
Décor: Expansive and uplifting, with a great view of the modern city below
Wine List: Italian, French and Greek wines dominate the list
Prices: 50-70 euro without wine. Our bill for two came to 171 euro with a bottle of Ktima Merkouri, one of the least expensive (Greek) reds on the list.
AddressL Vas. SOfias & Kokkali 1, Central Athens
Tel. 210 7242979
Open daily from 8 p.m. til midnight