The last two years have been different in many ways. The pandemic kept restaurants, bars and cafes closed for a long period of time, depriving people of every kind of social activity. Many of us went back to cooking elaborate meals at home, and those of us who didn’t ordered food from the growing list of restaurants that were forced to adapt to a new norm. In fact, for a long period of time, the only vehicles one would see on the streets of Athens – especially at night – were food delivery bikes.
Then came May. Places started reopening and the city became full of life again, with lots of new places thrown in the mix (though others were sadly permanently shut). There aren’t enough words to describe the joyous anticipation of getting ready for a night of dining out with good company, good food and good drinks. Add to that the excitement of seeing our favorite restaurant owners and staff members after so long.
We must confess, what we missed most was eating the city’s simple foods, like fresh seafood and paidakia (lamb chops).
To Steki tou Elia
Not long after restaurants reopened for outdoor sitting, we received some sad news. Elias, the owner of my favorite lamb chop taverna in central Athens, To Steki tou Elia, passed away, leaving his children in charge of his two tavernas in Thisio. I have made a point to stop by several times since To Steki reopened, always having the most deliciously pleasing bites of juicy charcoal grilled lamb chops. I know the menu by heart, but my order is always the same here; a platter of paidakia, tzatziki, salad, fried green peppers and hand-cut, crispy fried potatoes. A bottle of tsipouro is a must with the lamb chops and, trust me, they taste even better when you eat them with your hands!
Ouzeri tou Laki
I have written in the past about Ouzeri tou Laki, a place I truly adore. An ouzeri is a kind of restaurant that specializes in ouzo and mezze dishes that go along with it, especially seafood. At Ouzeri tou Laki in downtown Athens, you can never go wrong. I enjoyed a sampling of their different ouzos – they have more than 100 labels – paired with crispy, pan-fried red mullets and their award-winning dish of linguini, smoked herring and almonds. Light, yet intensely flavored from the smoky herring broth, it has a delightful crunch thanks to the coarsely chopped almonds and a beautiful, tangy twist coming from the lemon zest added at the end.
In mid-July, indoor restaurants were allowed to reopen – though only to vaccinated clients. I had been mostly worried for those old koutouki (underground) restaurants that are often “hiding” in Athenian cellars, full of wooden barrels filled with wine. Most of them are very special, but there’s one that is a bit more special! Diporto (meaning two doors) has been tucked away in the basement of an old run-down building behind the Central Municipal Market for over a century. The owner and cook, Mr. Dimitris, or Mitsos as his old clients and friends call him, has been working there since he was 13 years old. This is the place to try his legendary chickpea soup and superb retsina – also made by him every single year. I eat this soup with such pleasure even when there’s a heatwave, like the one we experienced this past summer. Creamy, slow-cooked chickpeas sit in a tasty, lemony broth, with chunks of delicious, fresh bread on the side for dunking. It’s excellently paired with Mitsos’ piney retsina wine, made in his village on Euboea island.
Annie – Fine Cooking
Annie – Fine Cooking opened in May in Neos Kosmos, and it has already received awards. Stavriani Zervakakou creates beautiful daily menus depending on the season and what fresh produce is available. Every bite here is delightful, but I particularly love their “Bread and Fish” dish, which can often be found on the menu. The grilled sourdough bread is topped with boiled amaranth greens, thin slices of syglino (cured pork) from Mani (south Greece), and a grilled seabass fillet. This summer, there was a side salad of samphire, onions and pickled loquats. A perfect bite indeed!
This historic pastry shop near the old Parliament, in Syntagma Square, has been in the same location since 1923, specializing in chocolates, loukoumi (Turkish delight), glazed fruit and pistachio treats like grothies (literally, fists) which are large, round pistachio balls bound together with caramel. In fact, those grothies were a favorite of the famous American-Greek soprano Maria Callas! This shop is beloved by many other celebrities of the past, including Grace Kelly and Jackie O. One of my favorite sweets bites this year was their chocolate-covered bergamot rind. The wonderfully decadent dark chocolate covered aromatic glazed strips of bergamot orange rind. These treats are perfect to end a nice meal, and best paired with an oak barrel aged tsipouro or brandy.
In some ways, every meal I had out since restaurants opened for indoor dining in the past six months was a best bite. Sitting round a taverna table with friends, a habit practiced at least weekly pre-pandemic, made every dish taste special. The sheer joy of telling stories, giggling, clinking glasses and sharing food I hadn’t cooked myself elevated every occasion to memorable. But three meals in particular stand out. And coincidentally, they were all devoted to exquisite fish and seafood.
The first was at a favorite taverna on the waterfront in Gavrio, the port of Andros, the island where we spend our summers. Karavostasi specializes in fish and vegetable dishes, fried, grilled, steamed, etc, but that day – the first Saturday in June – a brand new menu greeted us, with about 10 options that sounded so delicious and intriguing the six of us could not make up our minds. When Giorgos Sigalas, the owner, saw our dilemma, he put us out of our misery by suggesting we try them all.
As we passed the platters around, we could not decide which we preferred: the marinated sea bass filet, the ceviche, the “carbonara” of calamari strips instead of pasta, the octopus with orange sauce, something I don’t quite recall that was dyed a provocative red with beets. Settling on a favorite involved repeated orders of their excellent house wine, too.
I later learned that Karavostasi has a new chef, and we were able to enjoy his imaginative, utterly delicious creations several times over the summer. But that initiation remains etched into my taste buds.
The second discovery took place in Athens in mid-June. I’d popped over from the island for the weekend to meet an old friend not seen since we were in school at 17 (and I will leave you to wonder how long ago that was) with her two traveling companions, all three from Italy. We had a nice dinner near the Acropolis Museum, a good lunch at Avli in Psyrri – they had read about their “best in town” keftedes (meatballs) – and then, after a rest, we went down to the Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center so they could see the work of fellow Italian Renzo Piano, wander round the spectacular gardens and have supper at their bistro.
The architecture and planting did not disappoint but the so-called bistro looked empty and most unappetizing. I’d remembered a wonderful restaurant in the vicinity, but had not been in years and did not even know its name. A phone call to the friends who introduced me to it on the ferry to Patmos revealed that it was called Thalassinos and was indeed only two blocks away.
Hungry by now, we stepped into a charming sheltered courtyard with potted plants and other greenery, tables napped with white linen and just two other diners. When I mentioned my friends’ name, the warm welcome became even warmer. Over a lovely bottle of Biblia Hora white wine – we’d decided to splurge – we finally restricted our choices to a delicate sea bass carpaccio, fried crayfish tails that were both ineffably light and satisfyingly crunchy, smoked eel with fava, a mixed salad and something non fishy since one of our party was not an ichthyophile. Over a second bottle of wine, the four of us told stories about places and experiences in Greece and Italy, while savoring the house dessert.
The next day, I texted my friends on Patmos to thank them. They’d had doubts about recommending Thalassinos, feeling that maybe it had gone downhill, but I reassured them that the place had climbed back up. We had nothing but praise for both the food and the service.
Opened three years ago in Melissia, not far from our home in the northern suburbs, this is our go-to place when we want to impress friends or just relax and enjoy ourselves. But owing to the lockdown, we had not been there for well over a year. So, come October, when we were back in Athens, we found ourselves there twice in the same week – just to make up for missed treats. This time, there was no hesitation in ordering. We have our favorites. The trouble comes from over-ordering. Some of the offerings sound so mundane they seem barely worth mentioning, but once you have had Porphyra’s fried zucchini batons, you will never be able to ignore them. The same goes for the marinated anchovies; the “married fava” with onions, peppers and capers; the perfectly fried red mullet, which my husband can’t resist; not to mention new additions like the delectable monkfish with orzo and the spicy mussels saganaki with a dollop of feta. One should never go to a place like this with less than four people.
And having polished off every plate, we always have room for the pièce de resistance: the complimentary loukoumades, or what I like to call doughnut holes, deep-fried spongy balls sprinkled with honey and cinnamon. They may be a child’s treat but they’re something you never outgrow.
Apart from the food, we also love Porphyra because of its owner, Christos Cjoncari and warmth and smiles. We have been following his career for 20 years now across three restaurants, and his staff are unfailingly charming, too. If another lockdown is imposed, we’ll be able to order takeout, but they won’t be able to deliver the friendly, convivial atmosphere and the dishes may not taste quite as scrumptious without it. Fingers crossed that Greek tavernas will remain open this winter and spring.
– Diana Farr Louis
Published on December 24, 2021