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Another year has gone by, another year full of beautiful restaurants and wonderful flavors. The art of cooking and the pleasure of eating have reached new heights in Athens, where it’s all about the dining experience. Restaurants keep popping up, impressing us with a wide variety of cuisines and creative twists, often presented in stunning environments. But their menus also reflect a growing environmental awareness and emphasis on sustainability, seasonality and freshness.

Young, talented chefs are more and more becoming owners of their own restaurants, going beyond just cooking to cultivate relationships with their customers. Being both chef and food writer myself, I have the pleasure of experiencing this from both sides and understanding the importance of the relationship between the one doing the cooking and the one doing the eating.

No matter how much I enjoy (and cook) more complex, haute cuisine, on a typical dinner out I’ll run to my favorite taverna, grill house or hidden eatery that I randomly stumble upon while on my culinary quests. I like to chat with the people at these places, digging into the story behind the food – not only do I learn from them, I also feel the passion for what they do. And a global truth is that the best food comes from people who really love their work.

Steamed Ray at Ouzeri Tou Laki

Plateia Victorias (Victoria Square) in downtown Athens may not be the most polished neighborhood, nor is it a place you’d normally go to for seasonal seafood – most people would drive to the seaside for that. However, whenever I’m dreaming of fresh seafood, I find myself heading toward the square, which isn’t far from my home in central Athens, to eat at a hidden culinary gem called Ouzeri Tou Laki (Laki’s Ouzeri). On the left as you enter the eatery is a glass display case with the day’s catch. Very fresh and always seasonal, yet nothing too fancy, large or pricey.

One dish I am particularly fond of – in fact, it’s so good that I would travel from the other end of the city just to eat it – is steamed ray with slices of spicy green pepper and pink peppercorns, served in its broth and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Does it sound too simple? Maybe, but simplicity paired with top-notch ingredients is what I enjoy above all else. By gently steaming the ray with the peppers on top, the fish’s natural flavor is blended with a pleasant hint of heat. The piece of fish is shaped like a hand fan with its skeleton, which is made of a tough, elastic cartilage instead of bones, intact. To eat it, I like to stub my fork between the “bones” and slide the meat out, almost in shreds, juicy from the broth pooling beneath it and its delicate flavor amped up with a delightful spice from the pepper slices.

Lamb Chops at Trigono

Greeks love lamb chops, and I’m no exception. Yet, this is one of the dishes I hardly ever cook at home. I prefer to go to the right grill houses for my lamb chops, the tavernas that specialize in rustic cuts of meat grilled over charcoals, i.e. the real thing! One of my favorite spots is Trigono, not far from the Athens Airport, in a small rural town called Kalyvia. This place has been in business since 1991, and both owners, Andreas and Kostas, are butchers, so they know what they’re doing. They exclusively source Greek meat, primarily from Lesvos Island and Komotini, a town in northern Greece, and small local producers provide all their vegetables, yogurt and cheese.

Their lamb chops are particularly legendary – they only use meat from lamb that is around 25-35 days old and has only been milk fed. They are thinly cut and cooked over charcoal to perfection, crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside and simply seasoned with salt and oregano. When a pile of them lands on the table, I like to squeeze fresh lemon juice on top – it may sound strange, but it brings out the flavor of the meat and the smokiness from the charcoals. I eat them with my hands, no fork or knife in sight. As my friend Maria, a holistic doctor, says, when you eat with your hands and your fingers come in contact with your lips, that’s when your taste buds truly awaken.

Grilled Calamari at Simul

Last spring I was invited with a group of food writers to dine at Simul, a restaurant that is run and owned by Nikos Thomas, a young guy who left behind his music career to become a chef. Located on a quiet street in Kolonaki and staffed with young Greeks, Simul offers a contemporary, seasonal Greek menu that incorporates advanced techniques and plenty of fusion elements as well as traditional ingredients and flavors, with surprisingly familiar results.

One of my favorite dishes here (when it’s in season) is the perfectly grilled calamari served with creamed parsley root and dressed in a coconut-lime sauce. Although the calamari is cooked with non-traditional Greek ingredients like coconut and lime, the final result is surprisingly close to the classic avgolemono (egg and lemon sauce) – a staple Greek sauce – resulting in a pleasantly familiar, contemporary and light dish.

I’ve also become a huge fan of the pastry chef here, a talented young woman named Emmanuela Delatola. Her desserts are fresh and light, and prepared with top ingredients, like the amazing mango and passion fruit sorbet, wrapped like a dumpling in fresh mango carpaccio and served on olive oil crumble and tahini and white chocolate “rocks.” It’s one of my favorites, a perfect balance of flavors that are not typically found together, like tahini and olive oil, staple Mediterranean ingredients, and the tropical tastes of mango and cilantro.

Carolina Doriti

Marathia

We hadn’t been to Tinos in years although we spend our summers on Andros, just an hour away on today’s fast boats. But I was guiding some childhood friends to both islands in mid-October so felt I ought to know the best spots to take them. I asked pals with houses there and two fellow foodies for advice and every one of them said, “Go to Marathia, just outside town on the coast. You won’t be disappointed.”

It turns out they were right. The setting is perfect, sand-colored chairs and tables on a wooden deck above a long stretch of beach, with bamboo pergola and rattan hangings, all roughly the same shade of blond. There are even a few trees pushing up through the deck and the big blue Aegean for a view.

As the maître d’ pointed out specialties on the menu, he made us laugh by telling us his name is Euripides, his father’s was Archimedes and his brother’s Sophocles. He then whetted our appetites further by mentioning that he used to be a manager at Spondi, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Athens. I’ve never been able to afford it, but was happy to note Marathia’s creative dishes using local products without astronomic prices.

There being six of us, we were able to sample quite a few of them: a salad of cheese, louza (cured pork), figs, nuts and, yes, lettuce; grilled sausage; Tinos’ famous artichokes; sundried grey mullet sliced thinly like smoked salmon, and a cheese and spinach pie that Euripides had insisted we should try that had an ethereal crust like none I’ve ever tasted. When it came time for dessert, we nearly swooned over the chocolate mousse cake and white chocolate mousse confections that looked like meringues.

Although we were only on Tinos for two and a half days, and there is no shortage of fine restaurants on the island, we could not resist going to Marathia for lunch again on our last day and found ourselves ordering practically the same dishes again. Best of all, perhaps, was the fact that we could sleep it all off on wooden beach beds on the beach below our table and have a swim to wake us up afterwards.

Pak Tikka Indian-Pakistan Grill House

We discovered this eatery a few years ago, prowling around the “ethnic” groceries on Menandrou Street in the Central Market district, on the lookout for genuine papadums. Its bright façade with a mural of a robed woman, potted plants and photos of dishes framing a neon WELCOM (sic) sign, encouraged a closer look. So we stepped in and walked straight through to the display case where we could see what was cooking.

In a way, Pat Tikka resembles an old-fashioned Greek mageirio – slow-cooked premade dishes ready for serving – but there the comparison stops because these dishes are from another world. Having some acquaintance with Indian food through Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks, I know the names and tastes of some specialties, and Pak Tikka offers a wide choice, vegetarian and not. All you have to do is point, but that’s where the trouble starts. How to stop?

We always end up with too much, unable to restrain ourselves. We cannot resist samosas, some form of spicy stewed chicken or lamb (I dare not use the word curry), rice and a dal, at the very least, and then seat ourselves in the pleasant open room, where we are usually the only Westerners. Then comes the food, along with a complementary salad, raita (yogurt dip) and a pile of naans, that lovely fluffy Indian bread, which could be the real reason we keep going back. It is all delicious. And if there are leftovers, we get a doggy bag, though the pooch never sees any of it.

The real surprise is the price. Once, when there were three of us, the waiter waved the bill at us and said that will be €50. That sounded a little high but when he put down the paper, it read €15! And he started to laugh as we gasped. No wonder Pak Tikka has become a favorite of mine.

Cocona

It had been a difficult winter and for various reasons I had not been able to get out much. But on March 19, I managed a long walk in central Athens, from Kolonaki to the Central Market area dipping into favorite food shops in pursuit of a story. Braving the din of the crowded cafés filling tiny Milioni Street, I was halted in my tracks toward its end by a shop not much larger than a kiosk. A young woman wearing a huge smile and black and white scarf around her head was handing out pies and chitchat to a considerable line of men wearing suits and ties.

I came closer to see what they were buying and although the small display case was half empty, the aroma of baking pastry kept me lingering. The menu caught my eye; besides pies of different flavors, something more unusual awakened my curiosity, gozleme, a Turkish invention I had never tasted.

When the line thinned out, I opened a conversation with the owner. She told me her name was Ioanna and that she was from Xanthi, a beautiful town in Thrace, which I’d visited a few times. The shop was a memorial to her mother, a refugee from Asia Minor, who had been a fabulous cook, and that the word Cocona was a term of affection for a lovely lady. Ioanna makes all the pastry herself, and as I asked to try the gozleme – stuffed with pastourma and cheese – she rolled it out before my eyes, added the filling, folded it over like an envelope and cooked it on a griddle.

I perched on one of the three stools and nibbled it, trying not to burn my tongue or drip cheese on my clothes. More men came to order their favorites. Ioanna gave each of them smiles and banter. The gozleme was delicious and I’m sure the pies were too. But at some point I joined in with the joking and said to one of the friendly customers, “Do you come here for the pies or just to flirt with Ioanna?” We all laughed. My gozleme was delicious but Ioanna has something even more memorable: she’s beautiful, inside and out, and she cooks and serves her pies with love. A true Cocona herself.

– Diana Farr Louis

Borscht at Premiera

Premiera is that rare breed of restaurant that combines great food with a beautiful, chic environment and great prices. Stepping into this old house with its soft lighting and freshly pressed white linen tablecloths is akin to taking a luxuriously long bubble bath. The coziness of the atmosphere transfers to the food as well. Devoid of trendy ingredients and cutting-edge techniques, the food that chef-owner Despoina Christidou delivers is full of soul.

The best thing on the menu is, hands down, the borscht soup, a dish worthy of the trip to Kallithea, the southern suburb where Premiera is located. This hearty Eastern European dish can sometimes run too heavy, but here it is treated with lightness and respect, with a sensitive femininity that runs through all of Despoina’s dishes. What sets this borscht apart is the surprising lack of beetroots, which instead have been replaced by a mix of chopped fresh vegetables and a bit of tomato puree, together with tender pieces of meat. The dish comes topped with a dollop of lard and smetana, or sour cream, and served with a slice of very dark Russian bread. I can’t think of a better dish to have on a cold winter’s day, but from what I know they serve it all year round.

Steamed Anchovies at Barbounaki

There are dishes that try very hard to impress, but the steamed anchovies at Barbounaki is not one of them. The combination of soft fillets cooked in their own juices with a bit of wine and garlic, together with the hint of spice that comes from a small hot pepper, make the humble dish a delight for the senses. It’s reminiscent of how they cook fish in northern Greece, which they call “saganaki” (meaning from the pan it is cooked in), very different from the “saganaki” of shrimp – cooked in a tomato sauce with feta cheese – we love in southern Greece.

Barbounaki (Greek for red mullet) has no romantic story behind it, and I was very reluctant when people first took me there – I’m not a big fan of trendy fish tavernas, let alone one that is now part of a chain. Giorgos Papaioannou, one of the owners, runs a well established, high-quality fish taverna – Papaioannou – in Piraeus and decided a few years ago to open a sister restaurant in Nea Erythraia serving small, inexpensive fish and meze for everyone to enjoy. It was an instant success, and there are now five more restaurants with the same name in Syntagma Square, Glyfada, Kolonaki, Chalandri and on Santorini Island.

However, it was easy to fall in love with Barbounaki, and I have since visited countless times. It is not just the fact that it is very close to where I live, or that the service is impeccable, even on a busy Sunday. It is for this dish in particular, although admittedly most things I have tried, like grilled sardine fillets with chopped tomatoes and onions, shrimp saganaki or steamed mussels, are equally excellent.

Salt Cod “Loukoumades” at To Lokali

All-day restaurants and bars are not normally known for their food, but To Lokali (“The Local”) is an exception. Making its debut in 2019, this “Greek pub” with the motto “cup, tap and tavern” occupies the space that was once Cine Psyrri, an open-air cinema. Not surprisingly, it has one of the most beautiful, spacious courtyards I have seen in downtown Athens, and serves food and cocktails inspired by the ingredients and traditions of Greece.

The day we visited we only tried one dish, the salt cod “loukoumades” or fritters, a successful savory reinterpretation of this classic sweet dish of bite-sized, fluffy fried-dough balls – they left a great impression on us all.

Fried salt cod is traditionally served on March 25, Greek Independence Day and also the day of the Annunciation, a religious holiday celebrating archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary. Even though the day always falls within the strict Lent period, during which no meat or fish is allowed, there are two exceptions to this rule: March 25 and Palm Sunday. Pieces of fried cod are served together with skordalia, a dip made of garlic and potato, or sometimes bread, and one can find this combination in almost every taverna across the country.

To Lokali, however, makes the pieces bite-sized, hence the name “loukoumades,” and uses beets, a bit of garlic, and pickles to spice them up. The combination is just stellar, with the flavors and textures clashing and mixing at the same time. When paired with a tsipouro-based old-fashioned on tap, we are left feeling like Greece has reinvented itself altogether.

Johanna Dimopoulos

Diana Farr Louis and Johanna Dimopoulos and Anastasia Adamaki and Manteau Stam and Marco Arguello

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