This funky restaurant’s name was inspired by its address, on one of the main streets in the Athens district known as Neos Kosmos, or New World.
It could just as well be called Terra Incognita, so distant is it from the usual areas frequented by locals and foreigners alike for entertainment and good food. And yet, geographically, it’s just a short walk from a new institution that has already claimed its rightful place among the “must sees” of the Big Olive.
The old Fix Brewery, a massive building dating to the late 1890s, was revamped in the 1950s into a gem of industrial architecture, only to be abandoned from the 1970s onward. But it finally reopened this year after a long delay as the National Museum of Contemporary Art. We went eagerly in June and found ourselves just as excited by the gleaming white, vast spaces as by the provocative exhibits of documenta 14, the art festival taking place for the first time ever outside its home city of Kassel, Germany.
And since the building stands at the corner of Syngrou Avenue and Frantzi Street, we decided to investigate the eatery at number 43 Frantzi, highly recommended by a friend we trust.
The approach was not promising. Auto supply shops, shuttered facades, a bank branch, a pharmacy and other very mundane establishments gave the noisy street a drab, uninviting appearance. But when we located number 43 and slipped inside, the whole picture changed. The narrow entrance could have been lifted from a play school, its brightly painted tables and posters created such a cheerful atmosphere, while the courtyard made us gasp with surprise – it looked more like an island farmhouse than an urban outdoor space.
The various design choices, both big and small, made it feel as though we had stepped into a parallel universe: The two tall trees that provide shade in the center, complemented by bushes and even a fig tree leaning over a white-washed wall; the gray wooden chairs with rush seats; the benches covered by rag rugs; and white gravel underfoot.
We chose a table for two next to the trees, and Spyros, one of the three owners, brought us the menu and told us a bit about the restaurant’s story. He and two friends, Manolis, a fellow Cretan, and Panayiotis, from the Peloponnese, opened it four years ago, “in the height of the crisis.”
“Two of us were already in the restaurant business – I am a zaharoplastis (pastry chef) but worked as a waiter too. Panagiotis does the front of house and is in charge of selecting our raw materials and the producers/vineyards we collaborate with. He’s also an artist.”
“Is there anything better than a real Greek tomato?”
Spyros showed us the back page of the charmingly designed menu, where there is a long list wineries, breweries, cheesemakers and cured meat and fish companies that supply 43 Sarantatrio. “We’ve made it a point to support small producers without going through intermediaries, and we don’t believe in offering our diners box wine; it’s rarely good enough. So we only serve bottled.”
And indeed, the wine section of the 16-page booklet is larger than the food menu, with 16 whites, four rosés and ten reds, all from wineries you won’t find on supermarket shelves. Happily, they are priced much lower than bottled wines in most restaurants. Diners who don’t fancy wine can consume beers from Greek microbreweries, as well as ouzo, raki and tsipouro.
But we were hungry too, so after Spyros brought two glasses of Malvasia di Candia, a dry but full-bodied white from Crete, we studied the intriguing appetizers, some of which needed an explanation. Like Pontic Carrot, for example.
We decided to go for a mix of the unfamiliar and the familiar: The aforementioned Pontic Carrot, a shredded carrot salad that came shaped like a fez and seasoned with coriander and something to give it a touch of heat; the aliada, a garlic dipping sauce made with crushed pistachios (instead of the more traditional mashed potatoes, bread or even walnuts); green fava (puree of green peas); saganaki, fried cheese from Ios topped with two cherry tomatoes preserved in syrup – an inspired invention so different from the tasty but conventional sliced lemon accompaniment; and a mixed green salad served in a “bowl” made of very thin pita bread.
Each bite was a revelation, a new sensation, mixing memory with a desire for more. So Spyros obliged by bringing some grilled thrapsala (a delicate type of calamari), pickled kritamo (rock samphire), and two ovidia, meatballs in common parlance, with a paprika sauce. Dessert followed: strawberry soup with an island of coconut sorbet floating in it and crunchy profiteroles with bitter chocolate sauce.
After he served us the sweets, Spyros sat down with us again to tell us more of the restaurant’s story.
“When we took over this place, which was two old storage buildings, it had no water and no electricity, but it did have the courtyard, which we’d considered essential. Only the trees were here, but we fixed it up [with rows of painted bottles, old-fashioned vegetable bins, different colored shutters],” he explained.
“We’re helped by the pure, simple tastes of the best Greek products – is there anything better than a real Greek tomato? And we find that this crisis is actually pushing the emergence of new foods, wines and beers. That’s the good that’s coming out of it. Our producers are actually 50% of what we’re doing here. We believe in what they and we are doing. It’s not just moussaka and pastitsio any more.”
For our part, the dishes are so imaginative that we can’t believe none of the men are chefs.
Four days later, we went back with other friends for lunch, just to have a second go at the interesting menu. Manolis was on duty this time and introduced us to a new wine, Pine Forest, with hints of retsina. We drank it with real pleasure and paired it with a mountain of superb French fries and grilled pancetta, while eyeing what other tables were eating.
We will be back.
Even with two bottles of wine, lunch for four cost about 15 euros per person, what we normally pay for a meal where the wine is Chateau Cardboard.