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In the midst of lockdown, it sometimes felt as if we would never eat in a restaurant again. While we dreamed of visiting our favorite spots, greeting the owners warmly and sitting down for a long, satisfying meal, we never let ourselves imagine a future in which new restaurants opened, especially bold and exciting places like Kafeneion SI TI SI.

Yet chef Alexandros (Alex) Tsiotinis let himself dream – the idea for this modern kafeneio (a traditional kafeneio being an all-day venue serving coffee, booze and mezes) was, in fact, born during lockdown. The owners of Senios, a meze restaurant located downtown, came to him with a proposal to join forces. Alex accepted and quickly began crafting a menu featuring his own takes on typical kafeneio mezes.

It was a somewhat abrupt change of course for a chef with fine dining chops. Having cooked all over the world, often alongside Michelin-starred chefs, Alex returned to Greece and worked for ten years at Elounda Beach Restaurant in Crete before eventually making his way back to Athens, where he opened his own upscale restaurant, CTC. Deriving from the Greek word sitisi (σίτιση), which translates as “feeding,” CTC is a modern, elegant venue where Alex takes his guests on what he calls “a gastronomic voyage.” He brings Greek cuisine to another level, creating dishes with a rare finesse that perfectly balance flavors, aromas and presentation. Dining at CTC is an exquisite experience, but one that’s out of reach for many.

As the pandemic hit Athens and the city shut down, Alex made the decision not to reopen CTC, which has no outdoor space, once restrictions were lifted. It was around this time that the owners of Senios approached him about taking over the kitchen. Alex had always wanted to do something easier and more accessible, so he quickly immersed himself in preparations for the new project. In June, when restaurants were finally allowed to reopen in Athens, the brand new Kafeneion SI TI SI opened its doors as well – the space mostly looks the same, but the menu and the vibe have changed completely.

The eatery is located near the church and square of Hagia Irene, on a street called Kalamiotou. (For years the area was Athens’ textile district, and a few old fabric stores still survive scattered around the area’s mostly pedestrian alleyways, where numerous small bars and eateries have sprouted in the last 15 years or so.) Everything about the atmosphere reminds you of a traditional (albeit stylish) kafeneio: wooden barrels, ropes of garlic cloves hanging from the ceiling, old-school marble tables with classic wooden chairs. The tables continue outside, maintaining the distance required by Covid-19 health regulations.

The moment you sit down, “the tray” arrives. Bringing a large tray full of small meze plates, from which you can pick and choose dishes to begin eating immediately, before even giving your order, is an old-school practice – seeing it here unleashed a wave of joy and nostalgia over us. All the mezes on the tray pair well with wine, ouzo, tsipouro or beer, the classic drinks you’d normally order at any kafeneio in Greece.

The moment you sit down, “the tray” arrives.

We found ourselves struggling to decide between the eggplant dip, to which Alex adds miso and black garlic; the taramosalata (fish roe dip), which is made into a mousse, flavored with lemongrass and dill, and served with powdered bottarga; classic seasonal boiled greens; the smoky tzatziki; sardines marinated in the wine lees of vinsanto from Santorini, drizzled with grape leaf vinaigrette and served on rice noodles; and the baked feta, which here is more like panna cotta served with tomato marmalade, sweet Florina red peppers, fresh oregano and tomato-infused oil. And these are just some of the choices you’ll find on the tray.

While difficult, we didn’t order them all, as we wanted to save room for items from the main menu, which is seasonal. We tried the salad with fresh peaches, tomatoes and mint, topped with a refreshing ice cream flavored with charred rosemary. We loved their fried potatoes, hand-cut of course, marinated in garlic oil with oregano and feta and fried to perfection – soft on the inside and crisp on the outside. The flavor of rice-stuffed tomatoes and peppers, a summer classic, is here reimagined as arancini, and the grilled halloumi is served with their homemade fig jam.

We particularly enjoyed the salt cod puffs served on a thick and silky garlicky almond soup and topped with a pastourma (spicy cured meat) sauce (a twist on the Greek classic fried salt cod served with skordalia, a garlic-based dip). The smoked lamb breast served with mashed lemony potatoes, and the moussaka croquettes served with pesto made from Santorini tomato paste are also must-tries (we recommend coming with a large group to taste as many different dishes as you can).

But there’s another surprise on the menu: three different souvlaki wraps in the restaurant’s own handmade sourdough pita bread. One is with rabbit, tomato and onion stew (stifado), the other with veal slow cooked in a tomato sauce and paired with smoked feta cream, and the third – a lighter take with an Asian twist – is soft shell crab marinated in cucumber, cilantro, honey and paired with mayonnaise. These are also easy to take away if you don’t have time to sit down for a proper meal.

Their drink choices are excellent, including Greek beers like Nymphi, a lager from Thessaloniki that we particularly enjoyed, and a variety of Greek wines, our favorite being the white malagouzia, a native Greek variety, from Volacus winery on the island of Tinos. But if you want to splash out a bit, the owners of the restaurant, who also own The Clumsies, one of the best bars in Greece, have used their expertise to create special cocktails that pair with Alex’s meze creations. They are bottled in-house (in small 200 ml bottles) and arrive at the table with ice and any necessary mixers – you do the rest. Try their Bloody Mary with an elegant “Greek stuffed tomato” flavor, or their Negroni infused with dictamus (a Cretan herb) and black olive.

For dessert, we ordered loukoumades with mizythra cheese. The dish is inspired by the old-school doughnuts sold on beaches by vendors who walk around with a tray full of them and an ice box filled with chilled water (although you’ll find fewer of these vendors today than in the past). Alex turns the typically ring-shaped doughnuts into small round balls covered in sugar, which are served warm with a delicious, velvety coconut namelaka (a type of ganache whipped with gelatin, which results in a firm yet creamy dessert) and a refreshing passion fruit cream, keeping all the flavors balanced and divine.

It was the perfect ending to a night out in Athens – one that we weren’t sure we’d get again. If one good thing came out of the lockdown, it was the chance to enjoy elegant and affordable dishes made by one of Greece’s most talented chefs.

Manteau Stam

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