Ilioupoli may be an unassuming residential suburb southeast of Athens, but this neighborhood, whose name means “Sun City,” has at least one shining culinary star: Mikres Kyklades (Small Cyclades).
Opened by Antonis Kovaios in 2005, the seafood restaurant is named after the most remote group of islands in the Cyclades, which includes such heavyweights as Santorini and Mykonos. Clustered south of Naxos, the Small Cyclades are what you imagine islands in Greece to be – clean blue sea, natural beauty and an abundance of fresh fish and seafood – minus the crowds.
Antonis was born and raised on Schinoussa (sometimes written as Schoinoussa), an island in the Small Cyclades group that has a population of 256, according to the most recent census. At the age of 12, Antonis moved with his family to Athens, returning to Schinoussa for yearly holidays. In 1992, his mother, Pothiti, a passionate cook, opened an eponymous taverna on the island.
At Kyra Pothiti (Mrs. Pothiti), she grew a large fan base with her traditional, home-style dishes. Inspired by their mother’s popularity, Antonis and his siblings opened Tsigouri, a beach bar-restaurant, in 1995. Locals and visitors alike flocked to Tsigouri, the only place on the island to enjoy a nice drink and dance to some music by the sea. The bar-restaurant’s continued success allowed Antonis to quit his job as a naval officer and open Mikres Kyklades in Athens. His vision was to bring the flavors of his childhood home – Schinoussa – to the Athenian suburb where he lived for most of his adult life.
Just like the seafood tavernas on the islands, Mikres Kyklades is small, warm and simple. Besides the white tablecloths (you’ll find disposable table covers at most island tavernas), the only other sign that you’re not on an island is the restaurant’s location on a quiet, residential street – nowhere near the sea.
Antonis is almost always there, with an islander’s smile on his face and a permanent suntan, making sure everything runs smoothly. In the kitchen, you’ll find Stavros Spanelis in charge; another inspired islander (this time from Lesvos), Stavros shares Antonis’s obsession with high-quality and fresh ingredients.
To ensure that he only serves the freshest seafood at the best prices, Antonis works closely with fishermen – his “friends” as he calls them – from the islands of Schinoussa, Koufonisia, Heraklia, Paros and Naxos. They ship their catch directly to him, avoiding any middlemen. This allows the kitchen to prepare a couple of daily seafood specials depending on the season or a lucky rare catch. The restaurant’s selection of cured fish is also excellent; prepared in-house, they pack a flavorful punch.
At the end of our meal, shiny fish bones are the only things left on the platter.
This close partnership with fishermen has made Mikres Kyklades a destination for Athenian seafood lovers. There’s the delicate sea urchins, either served plain or cooked with pasta, which to us taste like the Aegean Sea. If you enjoy raw shellfish, don’t miss out on the oysters from Astypalaia Island when they happen to be in season. Large in size (locals call them “donkey hoofs”) and full of flavor, these are the best shellfish in Greece, according to Antonis. He also insists that the most flavorful calamari is found in the sea around Paros, Naxos and the Small Cyclades – we tried it based on his recommendation and are happy to report that he wasn’t wrong.
The vegetables are also carefully selected from particular regions in Greece: tomatoes from Syros Island; potatoes from Naxos; and onions from Vatika in the Peloponnese. As expected, a number of ingredients, such as horta (seasonal wild greens), capers, pickled sea fennel, xinomyzithra (a white creamy, sour cheese made of sheep and goats’ milk) and ladotyri (a cheese matured in olive oil), are from Schinoussa. It’s truly a family affair – Antonis’s brother Manolis produces the organic yellow split peas used in the restaurant’s fava puree.
As for drinks, the impressive wine list primarily features Greek island wines that pair well with seafood, like Assyrtiko, a minerally white from Santorini, and Begleri and Fokiano, a white and red, respectively, from Ikaria, along with a selection of ouzo and tsipouro.
In the winter months, we almost always order their slow-cooked octopus served with caramelized shallots on top of the fava puree. Or, if we’re there between October and May, we order steamed langoustines (a crustacean smaller than a lobster but larger than a crayfish) in their own broth, or poached grouper in langoustine broth with seasonal vegetables.
If you’re unsure about what to order, visit the fish fridge and go with what is freshest. When it’s straight from the sea, we like our fish whole because the head is the best part – we suck out the meat, leaving only shiny bones on our plate at the end of the meal.
For dessert, we recommend a tasty island-style cheesecake made with fresh xinomyzithra cheese and a delightful Syros tomato jam. It’s fresh, not too sweet and simply delicious. Paired with a shot of aged tsipouro, it’s the perfect end to a seafood feast (that at around €40, including drinks, is a bargain).