Wednesday, February 9, 2011 0 comments

Anyone who wants to get a sense for how the well-to-do party, Greek style, should take a cab ride about 6 km (4 miles) north of central Athens to the suburb of Neo Psychico. Here you’ll find the chichiest shops and some of the city’s most crowded restaurants, cafes and bars. On the main strip jutting out from the big A/B (pronounced Alpha-Beta) supermarket everything from traditional fare to Sino-Greek fusion, to Italian food can be samples. My last visit here was to the newest addition, Adamo, a bustling be-everything-to-everyone place that is part cigar bar, part café, part enoteca, and part restaurant.  It sits in a space once occupied by Dioskouroi, in its heyday a very well-known Greek taverna. We sat in the quietest spot in the restaurant, at the one table inside the glass-enclosed cava, but it was still hard to hear my neighbor.
Adamo is for ears more resilient than mine, or maybe for diners who also don’t mind donning ear plugs. Is it worth the trek north for this? Probably not. Better, much better, Italian food can be found downtown.
All the classics are on the menu, from carpaccio of bresaola, to the married-forever duo of prosciutto and mozzarella (buffalo), to vitello tonnato.
Most of what we tried was a little heavy-handed; much of it was drenched in oil. A plate of grilled vegetables with thyme vinairette and buffalo-milk mozzarella was denser and wetter than it needed to be. Vegetables grilled included red peppers, zucchini, and carrots. I would have tried the scallop (fresh from the Aegean, but where? Are scallops a native of Greek waters?) carpaccio with truffles, but a 93 euro price tag prevented me ordering it (as a starter BTW). I love vitello tonnato, but skipped it here, mainly because my dining companions opted instead for a few risotti and more. An appetizer of hot radicchio stuffed with mozzarella, prosciutto, parmesan, and arugula, dressed in the all-powerful balsamic turned out to be better than expected, the pleasant bitterness of the vegetable playing nicely against the sweet, almost syrupy consistency of the dressing.
It’s hard to go wrong with the intoxicating aromas of a truffle risotto, even if it is a bit played out. This one was competent. So was the Milanese risotto, if a bit staid and run of the mill. (It happened that I had just tasted another one, at the new Fuga near the Athens Music Hall, which was ethereal.) The tagliata with greens come served on a sizzling hot plate. The meat was a little tough.
Desserts included a tiramisu, a chocolate soufflé, and a lemon tart. Everything here was designed to be a risk-free collection of classics that satisfies the average Joe, even if he’s driving a Porsche Cayenne.
Dim. Vasileiou 16, Neo Psychiko
Tel. 210 671 3997
Prices: 35 – 50 euro a person 
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There are very few real neighborhood places in Athens, hang outs where office types congregate after work for a beer or a glass of wine and something to nibble on. Efimeron is one such place, located right around the corner from the brand new Onassis cultural center, Stegi Grammaton & Technon (Center for Letters and the Arts).
Efimeron remonds me wholeheartedly of a Parisian tabac. It’s smoky, there is a large catalogue of cocktails, wines, and beers to choose from, and the food, although simple, is a lot better than I anticipated.  Of course, you can also just sit and enjoy a coffee, at prices much less than those at the Ledra Marriott across the way. Its location is a boon, since all around the neighborhood, up and down Syngrou Avenue, office buildings crowd the streets.
If you’re here for breakfast, indulge in an omelet; for lunch a decent club sandwich might be the thing; for that time in between lunch and a typical Greek dinner (never before 10 p.m.) there is a fair amount to pick from.
A chicken salad with croutons, parmesan, bacon and cherry tomatoes was a little leaden thanks to a syrupy dressing. But the portion was generous enough to be called a main course. The beef (is it really veal, as stated) burgers, biftekakia in Greek, are pretty good and pretty juicy. A pasta with salmon surprised us. It was prepared with whole wheat pasta, for one, a rarity on restaurant or snack bar menus. There was no cream in the sauce. And the fish, smoked salmon, was plentiful.
We shared a bottle of Palivou rosé, with a luscious body and plenty of texture, and we reveled in a scene unfolding where 30-somethings unwound after a tough day at the office. This was a sliver of Athens I had never really known.
Efimeron, Evridamantos Street 15
Neos Kosmos
Tel. 210 9324414
Prices: 15 – 20 euro per person
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This is about the defrocking of a cult hero!
About 20 years ago, when we first moved to Athens, Valentina, in the boondocks of Kallithea, a working class neighborhood that is home to many of the most recent Greek immigrants from the farthest reaches of the former Soviet Union, used to be the place we escaped to for real food from one of Greece’s least known regional diaspora populations, the Rossopontioi (Greeks from the Black Sea). The place was refreshingly unadorned. Décor consisted of just a plain glass exterior, white curtains, a few chatchkas, and busty older blonds with mile-high twists of hair sipping tall glasses of vodka and Fanta. Their better halves smoked stinky cigarettes. Borscht, garlicky carrot salad, meat-stuffed cabbage leaves, and the best skewered meat in Athens were among the dishes we flocked here for. Driving to Valentina 20 years ago was an experience that combined food and social anthropology.
Then the place burnt down, suspiciously.
Then its owner and his family rebuilt it. The new, improved version was really just an updated rendition of immigrant bland, without any real character, less so than before, actually. The menu remained exactly the same.
That could have been a good thing, except that when you have fond taste memories of unique food, a 10-plus-year lapse requires either a leap of faith or a fall into the simmering hostilities of gustatory disappointment. We had the latter and came home with our memories bruised.
The shredded carrot salad with a watered down mayo dressing was so garlicky it repeated on me for two days. The “rossiki”—a Russian-style potato salad that has long been popular in Greece—consisted of, well, chunks of boiled potatoes. Frozen peas dethawed and cooked, carrots and mayonnaise. Like much else, it fell flat on this palate. The pelmeni are like raviolis but with absolutely no finesse. They must buy them frozen and cook them straight from the freezer. The flavor was totally flat and the meat inside popped out like little knobs with the slightest touch of the fork. Blinis, basically crepes, filled with a sour creamy cheese, were the best starch-cheese combo by far. I ordered a bowl of Smetana, which is a silky yogurt dip, to go with the lamb kebab, called saslik. Saslik is also made with turkey (a new addition to the menu) and with pork. It was pretty good. The meat marinates for a long time before it hits the grill on long metal skewers. When served it comes topped with ample shavings of raw red onion and a sprinkling of cayenne.
The garlic in everything haunted me for days afterwards. The meal left me feeling heavy and dense, with none of the ethereal pleasures I had remembered from Valentina’s more youthful days almost two decades ago.
Lykourgou Street 235, Kallithea
Tel. 210-9431871
Prices: 14-18 euro per person
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KOUZINA Breeze Cafe


Restaurant finds are a rare thing in Athens. The kind of places you simply stumble upon that turn out to be great are few and far between. Breeze Café is one such place.
Situated on the lower plaza in the Agia Paraskevi suburb (a place that once was home to Athens’ very first pizzaria), Breeze Café serves forth haute Greek cooking at affordable prices, turned out by one of the city’s most talented young chefs, Gikas Xenakis, who did a stint at the Michelin-starred Spondi. The venue itself might confuse a casual passerby at first. It looks like all the other “all-day” cafes on the strip, with an outer wall of movable glass that opens in summer and a very casual aura. In fact it is open all day, for coffee and snacks, but at night it morphs into a fine dining restaurant. There is a bit of a disconnect between the quality of the food and the energy of the space, but the owners are moving along with some design changes to sync the room and the menu more harmoniously.
Our first plate was a gorgeous “millefeuille” of Portobello  mushrooms and goat’s cheese, stacked over a thin pool of fire-engine red (but sweet) pepper sauce. An ersatz pizza-tart came loaded with whole small roasted tomatoes, prosciutto in billowy folds, boccancini balls and arugula, a peasant dish that went upwardly mobile without losing its soul. I loved the special of the day: squid cut into disks that were meant to look like scallops and did, served over a carrot foam and on two small tasty dollops of roasted eggplant salad. The chef plays with a pan-Mediterranean palette. Paella is on the menu, in spirit if not in form. Here it is made with orzo not Valencia rice, but all the right flavors are there, right down to the think rounds of chorizo that add a land-lubber’s richness to the shrimp and baby squid. It was wonderful. Ditto on a rabbit dish that came deconstructed and rebuilt in two ways: as a fritter, all crunchy and golden on the outside, and as two lobes of tender white rabbit meat served in an orange sauce over soft, comforting, cooked wheat. The ossobuco won me over, too, but for one thing. For some reason, Athenian chefs like to serve this hero’s cut without the bone, losing all sense of drama in its presentation. Xenakis serves the meat, which is meltingly tender, over a bed of polenta. The dish is delicious but its presentation is literally flat.
I loved the acidic, puckish lemon curd tart but could have done without strawberies in January. The tiramisu was topsy-turvy in a martini glass, rich, aristocratic, and velvety.
Breeze Café is a little out of the way for the average visitor in a downtown hotel, but now with the metro stop a few minutes away, it’s easy to get to and well worth it.
Dinner here costs somewhere around 40 euros, most of the time with wine, too. It would be double that if this place were downtown.
Agiou Ioannou 102, Agia Paraskevi
Tel. 210 6009092.
Prices: 35-45 euro per person 
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Askimopapo (The Ugly Duckling)


How could Frank Bruni, the New York Times’ former restaurant critic, miss the ugly duckling, which is what Askimopapo translates to, when he wrote a recent roundup of traditional Athenian tavernas? Indeed, Askimopapo is one of this city’s oldest holes in the wall, located in one of its oldest neighborhoods, together with a handful of other traditional tavernas and a slew of newer, sleaker places. It’s so old it’s a kind of temple to Athens of another era.
Askimopapo wreaks of history. The taverna was opened by the current owner’s father and was actually the original family home. The walls are covered with old Greek objects, from musical instruments to 50-year-old black and white photos. Braids of garlic hang from the rafters. Smells of traditional food waft from the kitchen.
The taverna interpretation of “tradition” unfortunately means almost nothing but meat, which always struck me as odd, given Greece’s wealth of main course vegetable dishes. On weekends, the specialty of the house is chick pea soup. We visited midweek, when the menu is scaled back to include about five or six main course meat dishes (mainly stews), a few salads, a phyllo pie or two, usually with cheese, and boiled greens.
We sampled a cheese and pasturma pie, called pita kaisarias, which glistened with butter and resonated with the spicy flavors of the cured beef (pasturma). A beef stew in paper was homey and comforting. The salad, a large, overflowing platter of grated carrot, cabbage, lettuces, arugula and more, was just right. Dessert was the taverna classic halva, the lagniappe almost all old-school holes in the wall like this treat their customers to when the meal is over.
Wines are bulk and served in quarter and half liter carafes.
Ionon 61 Petralona
Tel. 210 346 3282
Note: The taverna is about a 12 minute cab ride from central Athens.

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