Friday, January 21, 2011 0 comments

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

Service: Excellent

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

Read more »

Jimmy and the Fish

Monday, January 17, 2011 0 comments

Right after Easter and a week of languishing on the Island of Longevity (Ikaria) I came back to Athens still in vacation mode. I wanted to bask in the feeling of being a tourist in my adopted city, so, together with family freshly arrived from abroad, we headed to the trap of all tourists, Mikrolimano, and to an old standard bearer of sea-view cuisine, Jimmy and the Fish. This, of course, after driving past more than a few waiters with menus in their hand, out on the traffic-clogged quay, saying things like “Fis [sic] for giou]” and “kam een, ouee park.” The parking, it turns out, is a cooperative affair shared between all the restaurants along the water, since the guy who took my keys asked me which restaurant I’d be at. One thing I was glad for: we were the only “tourists” at Jimmy’s. Everyone else seemed as Greek as could be, folks who know the place, might be regulars, and come not only the view of docks and yachts but also for more than decent food in a place that’s survived the waves for nearly two decades.

Jimmy doesn’t serve up the most innovative fish cuisine in town (that’s the domain of stars like Varoulko and Milos); rather it serves up an accessible menu of greatest hits that pair well with gregarious conversation and a good bottle of Mantineia Tselepou, which is what we had with dinner. The menu is big and most of the fish offerings are frozen, but at least they are honest about it. The starters include a wide array of classics, such as marinated anchovies (gavros), sea urchin salad, seafood salad, grilled octopus, classic feta-stuffed squid and more. We tried the classic fried squid, which were fresh not frozen that day and very good—crunchy thanks to a thick batter coating and very tender within. They come served with remoulade. One non-fish thing we sampled was actually not that great, even though it’s simple enough to make: grilled pleurotus mushrooms. They had a slightly bitter aftertaste and were a little rubbery. But the grillman did a great job on the fresh sardines, butterflied and boned and served with a generous topping of slightly charred onions. I can eat that any time.
Two cooked dishes we tried were above average but far from haute: the risotto with saffron, salmon roe (brik) and langoustines was toothsome and too fluffy to be thought of as a proper risotto, more pilaf than risotto to these taste buds. The ravioli stuffed with seafood and ricotta was better and more comforting, recalling memories of fun meals in nonseaside locales like New York’s Little Italy. The portion was very generous, the filling tasty, the sauce a little too thick but not bad.
Here ended our cruise of Jimmy’s menu, without a dock stop at the panacotta, brownies, tarte tatin or crème brulee that are in the dessert section of the menu.
The service here is a little gruff, the waiters a little rough around the edges without being outright rude though, kind of like sailors on their best behavior in some exotic port of call.

Cuisine: Fish and Seafood

Athens Area: Mikrolimano, Piraeus, about 40 minutes from downtown
Decor: Maritime classic with a great view of the sea and fancy yachts
Service: A little rough around the edges
Wine list: Greek and reasonably priced
Prices: 45-55 euro a person
Address: Koumoundourou 46, Mikrolimano, Piraeus
Tel: 210 412 4417

Read more »



I know it might seem out of sync with the times to be writing about one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, but I can justify it by saying that we ate very well and voted for treating ourselves during the holidays to something a little chicer than a neighborhood taverna.
A night out at Kiku, in the hands of master sushi chef Τανάκα Μινόρου, who has been with the restaurant since its inception more than a decade ago, is the guarantee a lovely meal, filled with classics and not-so-classics of Japanese cuisine.
The restaurant hasn’t changed much since it opened, despite a recent change of hands. The same pared down, minimalistic design in basic beiges and blacks characterizes the space. The sushi bar is still a favorite place to sit. Even the waitstaff is more or less the same. I hadn’t been here in years but recognized the waiter.
Everything we sampled was beautifully and artfully presented, starting with a simple plate of edamame (soy beans) and fleur de sel.  The miso soup had finesse, too. I loved the totally over-the-top Sino-French concoction known as Hakko Unagi Foie Gras, a delectable combination of smoked eel and seared foie gras in the form of pressed sushi. The lavraki with spicy mayonnaise won me over, too, especially since this is usually the kind of dish I avoid on sushi menus anywhere. The assortment of sashimi (riceless pieces of raw fish) was perfect and perfectly fresh. The rolls had flavor profiles you could actually discern. The dish that sparked my interest, especially since I love a version of it made by Greek chef Christoforos Peskias at P-Box, is the eggplant with miso. It was soft and pillowy—as close to comfort food Japanese style as you can get without serving a bowl of steaming noodles. Miso works incredibly well with grilled eggplant.
Blackened cod is a de riguer dish on high end Athens sushi menus as well as on a few non-sushi menus (like Kuzina’s in Thiseon). This was very simple, well-grilled, and tender. The miso sauce worked in subtle ways here. Next, just for fun (!), we ordered the grilled rib-eye with chili sauce and kolokythakia. Rare, juicy, beautifully plated, this was a dish after my American meat-eaters heart.
Desserts were delicious, even the cliché dish of fried ice cream, which here was delicate and light. My favorite was a toss up between the sesame crème brulee and the chili-spiced warm chocolate cake.
Kiku is definitely a treat, typically for steeper pockets than mine, but I relished every bite.

Cuisine: Japanese sushi and contemporary Japanese food
Atmosphere: Subtle, civilized, elegant
Service: Excellent
Wine List: Excellent, with a good selection of Sake
Prices: 60+ euro a person
12 Dimokritou Str., Kolonaki, Athens. +30 210 3647033
Read more »

Kollias Fish Taverna on Syngrou Ave.

Many fish-loving Athenians have been a fan of Tassos Kollias and his heartfelt taverna in the boondocks of Piraeus. Kollias was the place to venture to for a foodie excursion: the fish was always fresh (and Greek), the meze fare excellent and convivial, the atmosphere delightfully kitch with seafarers’ chatchkas everywhere, and every meal punctuated by the neighborhood’s roving accordion and clarinet players who kept Kollias on their must-go-to list. But Kollias has moved up in the world, to a neighborhood that is fast becoming a restaurant hotspot, thanks to the newly minted Onassis Cultural Center, on Syngrou Avenue. In the vicinity, three pricey fish tavernas already compete for business: Thalassinos, Kollias, and TTT. His move to a grander space was bold, especially in these hard economic times. Many of his signature elements are in tact here, just redesigned: an open kitchen, a display of mezedes, and an expanded display of all the fresh, wild fish he has built his reputation on over the years. He doesn’t work with farmed fish. So, you might find a large, wild red mullet, as we did the night we went; or a bowl full of spinialo, a unique, rare preserved shellfish from the Dodecanese island of Kalymnos, that was a sponge-fishermen’s staple in the months they spent at sea. His seafarers’ chatchkas are still around, there are just fewer of them in the new space, which is light and airy, pared down, but still infused with the owner’s warm and friendly energy. The fresh fish is amazing here. On our recent visit, about two months ago, we were privy to some rare species of Aegean fish: the tiny sparos, a kind of sea bream; Those oversized wild mullets I mentioned above, which he grilled to flaky nirvana, and a small snapper, sauteed perfectly. His meze fare is less elegant and far less elemental than the simply prepared fish. Here, Kollias loses a bit of restraint, confusing ingredients and getting stuck on a few motifs, such as rolls. Not sushi rolls, but rolled up eggplants stuffed with mussels and cheddar, hardly a Greek combo and one that detracts from what is basically a good idea. He rolls up strips of roasted red Florina peppers, stuffing them with crabmeat, the delicacy of which gets lost under the briny flavor of the peppers. He rolls up filleted sardines and anchovies, stuffing them with herbs and various other things; These work better, especially for ouzo and tsipouro (Greek eau de vie). I loved a plate that wasn’t all rolled up: squid ink orzo with cuttlefish and pomegranate seeds. The sepia (cuttlefish) was as soft as butter. Kollias dessert menu tends towad the overwrought, a common thread in many seafood restaurants in Athens. Syrup-infused seker pare biscuits with deliciously gummy mastiha-flavored ice cream are an all-time classic here. Kollias: Syngrou Avenue 303, right across the street from the Onassis Heart Center Tel: 21- 9408620 Service: Excellent Prices: 35-55 euro a person with wine Wine list: very good prices on a very large selection of Greek wines Atmosphere: homey and cozy despite the size Open for lunch on weekdays
Read more »