The neighborhood of Kesariani, built on the lower slopes of Mount Hymettos and located around 3 kilometers east of central Athens, has long been a culinary destination, particularly for seafood (even though it’s nowhere near the water).
Many of the old seafood restaurants survive to this day although the neighborhood’s offerings have expanded to include other types of eateries – nothing too fancy, mostly mezedepolia, or meze houses. What makes these spots so appealing is their relaxed, convivial atmosphere. It’s a feeling that permeates the entire neighborhood, where old houses built by Greek refugees from Smyrna (or Izmir) still stand next to modern apartment blocks. In the warmer months, Kesariani’s squares and sidewalks are filled with Athenians seeking a bit of fresh air, and the neighborhood’s tavernas and cafés are livelier than ever.
It was on one such Saturday night that we first visited Rakaki, a modern Cretan tavern serving traditional dishes from the island. The small, cozy spot – there are only ten tables inside and another ten outside on the sidewalk – was packed, and we could tell most of the diners were regulars by the way they called for the waiters by name.
The restaurant was opened in 2007 by brothers Marios and Kostas Petropoulos, both in their 40s. Neither cooks much but their mother, Despina, hails from Crete and is a fantastic cook, so Marios and Kostas know how to eat well. As Kostas told us with a smile, “Our taste buds have been in training for years!”
The brothers grew up in Pagrati, in central Athens, but spent their holidays either on Crete or in the western part of the Peloponnese, where their father was raised. Although both trained in other professions – Marios studied economics and Kostas is a mathematician – they had always dreamed of opening a taverna, taking their inspiration from Cretan cuisine and their mother’s and aunts’ cooking in particular.
The restaurant stays true to this familial inspiration, beginning with its name, which is the diminutive of raki, a strong spirit distilled from the residue of crushed grapes in Crete (also known there as tsikoudia, or tsipouro in other parts of Greece). As soon as you sit down, they bring you a shot of organic raki together with fresh sourdough bread from the famous Pnyka bakery; xigalo, a white creamy yogurt-like cheese from Crete; and small olives from their olive grove in the Peloponnese prepared by their mother (the olive oil they use is from the same grove). A kalosorisma, a “welcoming” bite or drink, is a common practice at most Greek tavernas, but here it’s taken to the next level.
“Our taste buds have been in training for years!”
Their balanced and well-designed menu includes most of Crete’s signature dishes as well as a quality selection of Cretan cheese. If you’re looking to skip the mains and share dishes family-style, we recommend ordering from the long list of appetizers – they work perfectly as meze plates. Every one that we tasted was exceptional, so we’re being honest when we say that you can’t go wrong.
One of our favorites was the smoked hoiromeri (Greek-style cured ham), served on grilled bread with caramelized onions and chopped sun-dried tomatoes. The pan-fried apaki, Cretan-style cured and smoked pork, was among the best we’ve ever had and the sauce in the small pan they serve it in is just begging you to dip your bread in it until it’s all gone. Their rice and tomato stuffed grape leaves, now in season and served with a side of creamy yogurt, were also delicious.
If you’re feeling adventurous, we recommend both the snails and the offal. Being great fans of snails – especially the way they are prepared on Crete, sautéed in olive oil with rosemary, vinegar and sea salt – we couldn’t resist ordering them, and we’re glad we did as they paired perfectly with the raki. And the gardoubakia, lamb offal with chunks of liver, seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano and lemon tightly wrapped in well-washed intestines and shaped into a small sausage, is a delicacy. Here they bake them until the intestines turn golden and crispy, and then serve them on a wooden platter with lemon wedges and big chunks of sea salt.
From the restaurant’s salads, we highly recommend the Psiloritis, named after the famous Cretan mountain and the birthplace of Zeus according to Greek mythology. It has a base of carob rusks topped with chopped mixed greens, shaved carrot and fresh Cretan anthotyro (a creamy cheese similar to ricotta), and then finished with a dressing made of olive oil and petimezi (natural grape molasses). We also loved the Stamnagathi salad (stamnagathi is a wild green that grows on Crete and is considered one of their secrets to longevity). Here it’s used raw, which allows the vegetable’s unique bittersweet taste to shine, mixed with lettuce, arugula, fresh pomegranate seeds, almonds, nigella seeds, anthotyro and a dressing made with Cretan honey.
As far as mains are concerned, everything we tasted was impressive. If you’re not familiar with Cretan cuisine and are willing to try something new, order the gamopilafo. One of the most famous Cretan dishes, gamopilafo literally means “wedding rice” and is traditionally served at nuptials or other festive occasions. It’s a type of risotto cooked in mutton or goat broth, finished with a knob of staka (Cretan clarified butter made from goat’s milk) and plenty of lemon juice. The rice is served with a chunk of mutton that was slowly boiled in the broth as it was being prepared. We also thoroughly enjoyed the Ofto lamb, a traditional Cretan dish where lamb is baked on top of grape vine branches, which serve as a natural – and flavorful – meat rack. Here it’s served with baked potato wedges rubbed with tomato paste and a deliciously comforting herb-lemon sauce.
At each course, it was evident that all the ingredients used were of exceptional quality, and the flavors were simple yet well rounded and comforting, as they should be. As Kostas, a man who knows how to eat well, revealed to us, “Even if this place weren’t my own, I would still be here daily as a dedicated customer.”