Much as we may love the kitchen, and while the lockdown has given us plenty of time to experiment with old and new recipes, there does come a moment when the cook needs a meal off. Whether it’s because you have neglected to shop, have run out of inspiration or simply hanker for a dish prepared by someone else, being able to order from a place that has something more exciting than pizza, souvlaki, hamburgers and crepes is a very welcome treat.
Some tavernas have come to the rescue, offering takeout from their regular menus, but the owners of a landmark Kifisia taverna have taken that option one step further and opened a special shop catering to takeout and deliveries.
Cookos – the name is a play on the words “cook” and “kos,” the abbreviation for Kyrios or Mister – opened on December 15, 2020, and in less than two months has acquired quite a following in the neighborhood and beyond. It’s easy to understand why – their kitchen turns out some favorite foods that most home cooks can’t be bothered to make because they involve too much work: lachanodolmades (stuffed cabbage leaves), youvarlakia (rice-studded meatballs in an egg-lemon sauce), claypot slow-baked chickpeas, and delectable fish soup.
We tried them, then we tried them again, and again, along with a few other sides like creamy fava with caramelized onions and a plump hortopita made with a medley of greens rather than just spinach, that for once contains more filling than phyllo. Some dishes are offered every day, some are standard for each day of the week, while there are always one or two plats du jour, as well as a mouth-watering selection of grilled meats, salads and comfort foods like pasta, beef stew and soups. Many are taverna classics but somehow tastier than usual, through the interesting use of herbs and spices, extra virgin olive oil and a hefty splash of devotion.
On the front page of the attractive menu, we see the name Salmatani and realize the owner must be connected to the taverna by that name across the street as well as to Antonis Salmatanis, who has the big green grocer’s shop on the opposite corner.
When we meet one afternoon in February, Panos Salmatanis takes us across the street where we sit at a table in the eerily darkened, empty space of his family’s taverna.
“My two brothers and I are the fourth generation working in the restaurant business. Our great-grandfather opened this place in 1920, when Kifisia was a summer resort for the upper classes. It covered this whole area plus what’s now [my uncle] Antonis’s shop, and really amounted to a huge courtyard. They employed 18 waiters! In the winter, it was just one cozy room,” he tells us.
Panos started here as a waiter when he was 15, eventually moving into the kitchen. He later worked in other restaurants in Athens and on Crete, and spent a couple of years getting a master’s in hospitality and tourism at Huddersfield, near Leeds, in the UK. “Meanwhile, my brother Marios was studying at the Ritz Escoffier cooking school in Paris and then he worked at Arzak, the famous restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. He has his own restaurant now on Paros and most of the recipes we use are his. We talk every day,” he adds.
“No Knorr cubes. We make our stocks from scratch, with bones and lots of vegetables for extra flavor.”
We learned that a few years ago they turned this taverna into a restaurant, remodeling the décor as well as the menu. But during the pandemic, when it became obvious that there was going to be a second lockdown, Panos decided to open the corner shop across the street, “more for my team than for myself. We are four cooks, including myself, and we’ve worked together for years. I trained them from a young age and we are a family, not employer and employees.”
Panos also tells us the Cookos philosophy: “No Knorr cubes. We make our stocks from scratch, with bones and lots of vegetables for extra flavor. No fried potatoes or other fried foods, they’d arrive soggy at people’s homes and they’d blame us rather than the length of time it took to deliver them. The best quality meats and vegetables, greens from the farmers’ market, herbs we pick ourselves in the hills, even wild mushrooms that we gather and vacuum pack. Reasonable prices. And most important, healthy seasonal dishes. We’ll be changing the menu three times a year.”
In the course of our conversation, we discover that Panos and Marios have inherited a cooking gene from both sides of their family. Their mother’s grandfather was a chef to Paul, the King of Greece from 1947 until 1964, and his wife, Frederica of Hanover; her father cooked for Constantinos Doxiadis, the internationally known architect-planner, and her brother, Michalis Mitrou, was the chef at the Panorama Cultural Society in Kolonaki. Besides having a wonderful restaurant, it used to host exhibitions and lectures by distinguished Greeks, until serious damage caused by the earthquake of 1999 forced them to leave the building.
Panos remembers Michalis being a “tough teacher. He’d get me in the kitchen and make me cook the same thing all week long till I got it right. The next week would be dedicated to another dish.”
Cookos also does its best to help the community. “We were brought up to always give leftovers to people in need. And we work with Boroume, the food charity, twice a week,” Panos says.
They also try to be as ecologically responsible as possible, using coffee cups made of bamboo and paper bags. “Unfortunately, we have to use plastic for the foods,” he explains. “Otherwise things would get very messy.”
When asked about plans for the future, Panos says, “Even when we reopen the restaurant [where all the preparations take place at present], I’ll keep Cookos going. We intend to expand the menu to include some sweets – nothing ready-made – to add to our complimentary orange cake, and more fish dishes.”
“I like this work. The hours are much easier than the restaurant. We quit at 5:30 p.m. so I get to see my kids. The basic thing is for you to love what you’re doing.”
We love what Cookos is doing, too. A warm welcome and many thanks.
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