It all started about six years ago, when Cretan cuisine – food from Crete, one of Greece’s largest and most famous islands – became fashionable in Athens. Suddenly, Cretan restaurants started popping up all around the city. Traditional Cretan dishes such as the rustic dakos (barley rusk in extra-virgin olive oil topped with finely chopped tomato and mizithra, a light, crumbly white cheese with a slightly sour aftertaste) became popular in Greek tavernas.
Unlike those fashionable restaurants, though, Kriti (“Crete”) predates the Cretan fad and – more importantly – serves the real thing. Hidden in one of Athens’ many arcades and in a rather unappealing location, drab and hectic Kanigos Square in downtown Athens, Kriti is a shrine to everything Cretan. Cast-iron figures of famous Cretans hang on the walls, while the music that sometimes blares through the speakers is usually that of Nikos Xylouris, the island’s most famous singer. Be warned, however, that this is not your average restaurant. It does not even have a menu; the owner and his daughter or his wife will come over to your table and list the dishes on offer.
The menu is dazzling in both quality and variety. Most people opt for a number of starters, washed down with raki. Our favorites include stamnagathi (a spicy wild herb, boiled and best served with lemon), saganaki (fried feta in phyllo pastry with honey and sesame seeds), baby tomatoes filled with spicy soft cheese, xoxlioi (snails in garlic) and apaki (smoked Cretan pork that has been marinated in vinegar).
Not to be missed are the delicacies from Sfakia in Southwest Crete: pita sfakiani (a fried pie made with mizithra cheese) or sausage from that area. Dessert – usually dried apricots filled with cream – is on the house.
Kriti is not a place to go for a quick bite; prepare to spend a minimum of three hours here. The service is quite slow as there are simply not enough people working at the restaurant to meet demand, but that’s really part of the charm. Every time you remind Takis, the owner, that you need the bill, he’ll serve you another round of raki. Try finding authentic hospitality like that in some of the other “Cretan” joints in town.