Editor’s note: This is the second installment of “Best Bites of 2012,” a roundup of our top culinary experiences over the last year. Up next is Mexico City.
Greek wine has always been a bit of a hidden gem, excellent but produced in small quantities and thus more expensive when exported; as a result, it still has not gotten the international attention it deserves. Hopefully, the crop of wine bars that have recently sprung up in downtown Athens will help more people get to know Greek wines.
Our favorite of these wine bars, Oinoscent, was also the first to open, in a tiny space between Plaka and Syntagma a couple of years ago. This year, it finally moved to larger premises on the same street.
Oinoscent is owned by two friendly young brothers who know their wine and who are happy to offer advice without being overbearing. Despite Oinoscent’s success – and unlike some of its competitors – the venue’s standards have not slipped. The wine served, both by the glass and by the bottle, is excellent, but there are two things that really make the place special. The tapas-like snacks, while nothing fancy – a small plate of rusks and green olives, or a cheese and charcuterie selection – are of very highly quality, as everything is made with fresh ingredients. The second reason we’re so fond of Oinoscent is the casual décor and wonderful wine cellar downstairs, which lend the venue an air of casual sophistication.
We’ve been to our favorite dairy bar – the only one remaining in downtown Athens – a million times. Located in the somewhat down-at-heel area of Omonia, this old-fashioned place is famous for its sheep’s yogurt: so thick it is almost crusty, the stuff here is the real deal. But it was only recently that we tried something completely different, and which blew our minds: anthogala (which roughly translates as “milk flower” or “the best of the milk”), the frothy cream that comes from boiled cow’s milk. Served cold in a plastic cup and topped with honey and walnuts, the anthogala has a creamy, buttery taste that is to die for. Discovering this treat was certainly one of our most memorable culinary experiences this year.
The image of the old-fashioned, traditional mezedopoleio was turned upside-down when this funky place in Pagrati opened its doors this past summer, and we’ve been regulars ever since. Mavro Provato combines the finest aspects of a nice Greek restaurant – excellent atmosphere, hip décor and quality ingredients – with the best aspects of a good mezedopoleio: good value for money and a wide selection of tsipouro, raki and rakomelo. It’s a winning combination, to the point that you won’t find a table here unless you book well in advance. The pancetta marinated in fresh herbs and pepper is without a doubt our favorite dish.
A few years ago there was a fantastic Indian restaurant in Metaxourgeio called Noor. When it closed down unexpectedly, Indian food lovers in Athens were devastated. Luckily, the owner, the chatty Mr. Imran, opened up shop again in an untraditional culinary area: near Panormou metro station. Red Elephant’s star dish is the peshwari naan: filled with coconut and yellow raisins, its sweet, crunchy flavor complements the spicy dishes perfectly. The atmosphere is on the odd side – a combination of the classic and the kitsch, with the obligatory Bollywood movie always playing in the background – but this is possibly the best experience of Indian cuisine you are likely to have in Athens, offering fantastic service, good food and excellent value.
This old-fashioned joint is one of the best kalamaki-makers in Athens and one of our favorites, serving the perfect combination of fat and meat (pork), which is always fresh and succulent. Livadia recently moved to a new location across the street from where it was previously located, on a pedestrianized street near Kanigos Square. The new space is bright and airy, without the tacky décor often associated with such a bold move. There is an endless line of people waiting to get their kalamaki from where it is grilled over a giant open flame that occupies almost a whole wall. To add to the appeal, Livadia has lowered their prices: kalamaki now costs just €1 and – as the venue always advertises – you can eat as much bread as you want. What a bargain!