Kostas Souvlaki

Monday, June 13, 2011 0 comments

It’s not everyday that I lose total self control and give in to the temptation for Greece’s classic “junk food”—souvlaki. But when I do, there is only one place worth sacrificing self-esteem and birthright for: Kosta’s.
A tiny, hole-in-the-wall with a large following and an even larger queue, Kosta’s has been around for a few generations, serving up this Greek classic to legions of Athenians who happen to work or live or stroll in the immediate vicinity of Syntagma (Constitution) Square. The place, almost nondescript from the outside, is nonetheless pretty easy to recognize because a line of mostly men of the round-belly body type starts to form around 11.30 in the morning and doesn’t ease up until late afternoon. They  typically leave with bags full of Kosta’s souvlaki, to share over a beer with their work buddies.
One caveat: The wait for a 2 euro souvlaki is an exercise in zen patience. It could take up to a half hour. Over the grill, where Kosta the younger (the original owner’s grandson) tends to skewers, hangs a sign that says, simply (in Greek): No Anxiety!
The wait is worth it because every component of the souvlaki here is perfect. The pita bread is grilled and smokey, just on the cusp of crunchy, and nothing like the greased-up pita wraps of other, lesser, souvlaki joints. Lamb is the meat of choice here, grilled over coals, juicy, tender, delicious. The fixings give Kostas’s souvlaki the brush strokes of culinary brilliance. First there is the yogurt, which is as thick as ice cream and unapologetically sour. Tomatoes are fresh and sweet, onions pungent and plentiful, parsley properly refreshing, and cayenne pepper spared no quarter for anyone who asks for it. Add to this the fact that the place is spanking clean, a rare thing, indeed, and what you get is the ultimate recipe for success. A, and one more jewel in this souvlaki’s crown: He will gladly prepare Greece’s national street food for…vegetarians.
Kosta’s Souvlaki
Mitropoleos & Pentelis St. 5
Tel. 210 322 8502
Price: 2 euro each
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Magemenos Avlos (Magic Flute)

Sunday, June 12, 2011 0 comments

The Magic Flute
It was quite by accident that I ended up dining at the “Magemenos Avlos” (Magic Flute), one of Athens’ oldest, and most history-filled, tavernas. To eat here is to step back in time.
The place, located just off Plateia Proskopon (“Scout Square”) in Pangrati, not far from the Hilton and the National Gallery, is as it was in its 1960s heyday, when it was the hangout for Greece’s most famous artists and musicians, including the internationally known composer Manos Hatzidakis, for whom the Magemenos Avlos was something of a second home.
The menu has the decided flavor of nostalgia, too, harking back to a time when dining out in Athens meant either an indulgence in Greek Sunday classics like braised rooster with noodles, or a foray into the continental (i.e. French) cuisine of the time: fondue, Tournedos Rossini, Viennese schnitzel, crepes, paillard, and duck a l’orange. Here and there are a few nods to “contemporary” Greek cuisine, in the form of chicken breast cooked with Chios Mastiha, which was actually pretty good.
The classics are competent: the rooster was a little dry but flavorful. The duck a l’orange was retro even in its plating, with rice and steamed vegetables. A green salad livened up with avocado, grapes, and sesame seeds was good. A plate of German-style sausages may not have a place much longer in the hostile-takeover atmosphere of Athens circa 2011!
The atmosphere is worth indulging in more than any plate we had. Dinner is still served with a serenade or two, performed with dramatic flair by the singer of the house and her two-man band. The walls are filled with pictures of a Greece in more innocent times, when people still danced in the aisles and on the tables and when the boundaries between common folk and the country’s rich and famous were not separated by barbed-wire and infra-red cameras. Around 1 a.m. the owner, with a group of friends, started crooning along with the singer. The repertoire seems to be religiously devoted to the music of Hatzidakis.
Despite the less-than-stellar food, we spent a most pleasant evening here basking in the retro glow of happier times for this beleaguered country.
Magemenos Avlos, Amynta 4, Pangrati
Tel. 210 72 23 195
Prices: 35 – 40 euro a person

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Thama is Greek dialect for miracle. The miracle of sorts that Thama represents is a Greek-crisis-born trend, the arrival of which has long been overdue: the mushrooming of reasonably priced, nicely appointed neighborhood restaurants with good, decent, even interesting, food.
If you’re willing to take a metro ride to the Nomismatokopeio station, about 10  minutes from Syntagma, you might want to venture here. Thama is virtually next to the station.
There’s a bonified chef in Thama’s kitchen, and he draws much of his inspiration from the southern Peloponnese, land of citrus, olive oil, olives, and more, which happens to be the owners’ birthplace. The region’s legendary olive groves, sprouting of sheer rock in an almost lunar landscape, are what have given inspiration to the simple, pared down décor here, too. Each table is decorated with an olive branches. A few potted trees hold court in the corner. The décor is plain and the lighting maybe a tad too bright, especially for evening meals.
At Thama, despite the fact that it’s really “just” a neighborhood restaurant, the plating is artful and the flavors marks above average. One plate we liked a lot were the stuffed eggplant. Don’t imagine a drooling imam bayaldi (eggplant halves overflowing with ground meat sauce). Here, stuffed eggplant comes cut like cups and filled with chunky, shredded, aromatic braised beef. Four pieces stand tall on beautiful, long plates. A broccoli “soufflé” comes served in small, individual terrines. The vegetable’s herbaceous character comes through loud and clear. A baked potato stuffed with cheese would win the hearts of any tater fan. It is literally dripping with a variety of Greek cheeses. Zucchini fritters were a little starchy, maybe because the vegetable was out of season in early spring, when we visited, and so a little more watery than normal. Mixed with flour, this turns to gum. The flavor, redolent of mint and other herbs, was good. There is also a host of regional, s. Peloponnese dishes to try here, from the tomato omelet, kagianas, to the grilled Kalamata sausage to the babanatsa, a local barley rusk salad.
Main courses were a little less focused. I liked the veal cutlet with feta sauce, although presentation-wise it was tired (plain rice).
A chocolate tart was as thick as fudge and came served with caramel ice cream.
Thama, Mesogeion 242, Holargos
Tel.: 211 013 9951
Prices: 20 – 30 euro  
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Optimism in Greece is in short supply these days, so visiting a new restaurant filled with hope (and people) was refreshing to say the least. Fishalida is one such place.
The recipe for “success” at this new fish restaurant in Pangrati is as old as the hills: Location, location, location (very centrally located at a short walk from the Hilton and the Evangelismos Metro stop); a bright, original, and inviting interior that communicates lightheartedness; a good relationship between price and quality and a menu filled with playful, tasty dishes created by two young chefs.
The space is done up in shades of sea blues and coral, with funky lighting fixtures, bubble motifs and a general, all-around, happy feel.
As the name implies, the fruits of the sea fill the bowl here. We loved the house-marinated anchovies, plated to resemble a star, crisp and clean in flavor and perfectly toothsome in texture, the result of having spent just the right amount of time in salt and vinegar to “cook” without toughening up. The grilled bread, aka bruschetta, topped with crabmeat was simple and cutsy. The taramosalata was excellent: silky, sharp, balanced with proper acidity. I loved the smoked mackerel and lentil appetizer, cooled by a bed of raw, shredded, marinated zucchini. The combo of beans and smoked or grilled fish or seafood is one that has been evolved over the last few years here as chefs look to tradition but also to contemporizing the classics. A squid-ink risotto with strips of cuttlefish was delicious and bravely black. A heap of fried tiny Simi-island shrimp was as easy to eat as popcorn at the movies. Other specialties include retty damn good Greek fries, sun-dried octopus, and aromatic tsipouro (Greek fire water) from Thessaly.
Fishalida: 2 Naiadon & Antinoros street
Tel.: +30 210 723 4551
E-mail: fishalida@gmail.com
Website: http://www.fishalida.gr

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