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Editor’s note: The year is coming to an end, which means it’s time for us to look back on all the great eating experiences we had in 2014 and name our favorites among them.

This modern-looking patisserie is located in central Athens on busy Katehaki, a street more associated with car mechanics than with any sort of food. The Pavlidis family has been in the pastry business since 1932. Famous for its galaktoboureko, this patisserie actually prides itself on its mandoles, a rock-shaped chocolate concoction with caramelized almonds. But really, it’s the kaimaki ice cream which comes in two different variations that we love most. Good kaimaki ice cream is hard to come by; it tends to be quite heavy. Pavlidis makes its version the classic – and correct – way, using buffalo milk, mastic and salepi, flour made from the root of wild orchids, which produces a milky and chewy treat. The bitter almond version is a fragrant, melt-in-your-mouth masterpiece. This is far and away our favorite ice cream in Athens.

This legendary patisserie remains firmly rooted in the ’80s – and so it does its menu. Thank God for that! Xara offers six versions of its specialty, ekmek, and the various kinds underline the difference between what the Greeks and Turks call this dessert. In Greece the base is usually made with kataifi, the finely shredded phyllo widely used in desserts around the Middle East, and topped with whipped cream and pistachios or almonds. The Turkish version is essentially a bread pudding drenched in syrup and then topped with kaymak, a clotted cream made from buffalo’s milk. Xara’s variations range between the two, but our favorite is the traditional Turkish one.

Base Grill
On the rare occasions when we eat meat, we like it medium rare and of exceptional quality. And in Athens, that means one place: Base Grill. Twin brothers Spiros and Vangelis Liakos serve hearty portions of pork chops, rib eye, Brazilian-style cuts, sausages and burgers and grill each with its own specific technique. Our favorite is the picania, a deeply flavorful and juicy rump cut. Needless to say, this is not the place to bring vegetarians.

This fall a film crew making a documentary on olive oil and its influence on the civilizations of the Mediterranean asked us to sleuth out the best Cretan restaurant in Athens. They had no time to go to Crete but wanted to find out more about the food of the people who consume more olive oil per capita than any other place in the world. We took them to Culinary Backstreets favorite Kriti.

The owners, Takis, Katerina and their daughter, Penelope, could not have been more obliging, and after an hour of filming, Takis asked, “What can we offer you?” and had a waiter lay the table for the six of us. A banquet followed, plate after plate arrived, representing practically all the day’s dishes, from marathopites (wild fennel pies) to snails, braised pork, lamb tidbits, dakos and more. Everything was delicious but we agreed that the pièce de resistance was the lentil and beet salad, a combination new to us. Dessert consisted of a platter of poached fruit with thick Cretan yogurt and sfakiani pita, a special pie drizzled with honey. Takis made sure the raki flowed nonstop. And then he reduced us to tears by refusing to accept payment for the feast. Cretan hospitality is notorious and you cannot fight it. “It was a privilege to be in the film and we cannot take money from our foreign friends,” was the excuse. Thanking the family, the director said, “We quite understand. In Palestine, where we come from, we would do the same.”

When a restaurant has been open since 1917, and it’s still hard to find a table almost a hundred years later, you know they’ve got to be doing something right. Margaro, next door to the Naval Academy in Piraeus, is one of the few places in Greece that has not bent to the pressures of time or fashion. It’s also our family’s all-time favorite eatery.

At Margaro there is no question of dithering over the menu because the options are either red mullet or fried shrimp or both, and a big horiatiki (village salad) topped with a thick slab of excellent feta and dressed with fruity olive oil, along with plenty of chewy, old-fashioned bread to mop it up with. Sometimes fangri (red snapper) may be on offer, but otherwise that is all, regardless of the season. All the cooking is done in two huge cauldrons of boiling oil. It may lack variety but the meal is never any less than perfect – impeccably fresh ingredients, skilled treatment. Dessert, on the house, alternates between homemade halva and moist portokalopita (orange cake).

We never go if we can’t sit outside, for the interior can be noisy and dark despite the unadorned white walls, and we always go early because Margaro does not accept reservations. Outdoors, you’re hardly aware of the sea, but this is a place where only the food matters.

While meateries are becoming more and more popular, Kozi’s has a unique appeal thanks to its owner’s South African roots. We had a terrible time deciding what to order from a menu divided into appetizers, burgers, pitas, salads and meats – an embarrassment of choices with unfamiliar names like mala mala or chakalaka, accompanied by mouthwatering descriptions. Three of us finally decided on bruschette, super chakalaka, and porco porco — in other words, toasted bread with tomato, pesto, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar arranged in a cone rather than slices; 800 grams of steak served exactly the right shade of pink with an astounding sauce concocted from South African spices; and grilled pork fillet with another mind-blowing sauce. All came with thinly sliced round fries. There was enough food for possibly two more hungry people – or so we thought. The meat was so extraordinarily good, reminding us of steaks in Manhattan or Argentinian places in London, that we continued to eat well past the point of reason.

The service was as delightful as the food, cheerful and efficient, even though not an empty table existed. The owner’s father presented us with his wife’s walnut cake à la mode, even though we protested. He obviously knew better: we left not a crumb. And the wine, a loose local red, rather than a more pricey South African, proved more than drinkable. When the bill arrived, we were shocked at how reasonable it was. Our poor dog did not get to taste more than a very clean bone.

Reporting contributed by Despina Trivolis, Christiana Thomaidi and Diana Farr Louis

Published on December 19, 2014

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