Best Bites of 2015 in Athens | Culinary Backstreets
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Editor’s note: We’re celebrating another year of excellent backstreets eating by taking a look back at our favorite restaurants and dishes of 2015.

In a country that can boast of very few authentic (if there can be said to be such a thing when it comes to cooking) Greek desserts, galaktoboureko remains quintessentially Greek. This semolina custard pie of cream between layers of thin phyllo doused in syrup remains a firm national favorite. Kosmikon is the undisputed king of Athenian galaktoboureko. An old-fashioned dessert shop operating since 1961, it now has five locations around Athens. The galaktoboureko here is done the traditional way, with butter from Thessaly in central Greece or Mytilene, homemade phyllo and – most importantly – no lemon or orange flavoring, just the traditional vanilla. The result is that rare thing when it comes to phyllo-based, syrup-drenched desserts: a wonderfully balanced concoction, sweet but not too sweet, with cream oozing from the sides, and the phyllo remaining thin and crisp. We recommend going to the two central locations in Agios Nikolaos and Agios Eleftherios for their charmingly retro atmosphere.

Sometimes all we’re really looking for is convenience, familiarity, decent nosh and prices that won’t break the bank. That’s why this year we seemed to find ourselves most often at Koutouki, a tavernaki at the northern end of Kifisia that’s been around since 1974. It has open-air seating in summer and is cozy in winter, divided among several areas so diners are not jammed into one noisy space. The menu is long and varied, with salads galore, plenty of vegetable dishes like an outstanding imam bayildi and baked chickpeas, but also comfort food like cabbage dolmades and keftedes, as well as enough fish and meat dishes to make anyone happy. Service comes with a smile; desserts – lemon pie, halva, panna cotta – are on the house; and the wine is drinkable. What’s not to like?

Seirines, or “Sirens,” right on the port of Rafina, lives up to its name. When we think of the delectable, imaginative fish dishes created by Greek-Australian Pamela Halkiotis, we respond to their call. You certainly don’t need the excuse of island hopping to make the trip to Rafina to have lunch or dinner in this simply but stylishly decorated, welcoming restaurant. But take along some friends so you can sample more of the tempting choices, which include fabulous seafood risottos and pastas, spicy shrimp with a moreish sauce, crab-shrimp cakes, marinated anchovies, fish of all kinds and a wicked skordalia (garlic sauce) and beet salad. This is definitely not your run-of-the-mill fish taverna.

We’ve only been to Fish Co. Platters in Neo Psychiko once, but we’ve been dreaming about its exquisite fish dishes ever since last spring. The place is run by South African Greeks, and they’ve brought with them a fabulous range of spices as well as expertise in the kitchen. We were with an English friend who was nostalgic for Greek standbys like kalamarakia, taramosalata and grilled sardines – things we might not have ordered had we been on our own – and yet they were prepared so deftly and with surprise touches (Cajun seasonings on the squid, for example), we had no complaints. Next time – and we hope that it will be soon – we’ll try their many surf-and-turf combinations if we have enough room after their divine garlic bread. Good South African wines too, available by the glass, make this place an exceptional value.

Le Greche, an artisanal gelato parlor tucked away on Mitropoleos Street, right off Syntagma Square, has been churning out premium, all-natural gelato and desserts since mid-2014. Owner, food writer and classically trained chef Evi Papadopoulou is the mastermind behind this culinary gem. She studied under renowned Italian pastry chef Iginio Massari and followed up with specialized artisanal gelato training at Francesco Palmieri’s prestigious laboratory in Puglia, Italy. Soon after graduating, she returned home to Athens to put her palate and vision to the test. And thus, Le Greche was born: a concept committed to using fresh, all-natural products and carefully sourced premium ingredients from Greece and Italy. These carefully curated regional elements include ricotta from Crete, dried figs from Kalamata, raisins from Corinth, honey from the Cyclades, fresh milk and strained yogurt from local farms, lemons from Argos and sweet wines from Lemnos. Our favorite flavor is the full-bodied baklava and cream. It’s essentially a creamy deconstructed baklava in a cup comprised of crunchy morsels of phyllo and dabs of gooey filling, finished off with a hint of syrup and exotic spices from Asia Minor, making it perhaps the ultimate expression of this shop’s Greek take on gelato.

Brisk winter evenings call for a cozy dish that’s warm and nourishing. On nights like these, we crave pasticcio, the epitome of Greek comfort food. Renzina, a small takeaway-only eatery in Kallithea, specializes in the dish, and frankly, its version is a slice above the rest. The family behind this eatery has been serving up their grandmother’s spitiko recipes since 1993. Dora, the family matriarch, is the head cook who prepares this rich dish daily with the precision of an architect. She expertly assembles layer upon layer of tubular pasta in long strands with locally sourced cheeses, their unique combination of kima, or ground beef, and the final layer of béchamel cream. And then there’s that secret blend of aromatic spices wafting through the air that hits us well before the first bite, completely engulfing all our senses. The dish is so popular that it generally sells out by lunchtime.

— Christina Michele Rios

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