In ancient times, the murex shell, “porphyra” in Greek, was the source of a beautiful dye so rare and costly to produce that it was only used for royalty – the royal purple. Three years ago, in Athens’ northern suburb of Melissia, a restaurant calling itself Porphyra opened, preparing high-quality seafood with a creative yet accessible flair – no foam or unrecognizable frills.
We have yet to taste a dish there that was less than scrumptious and because we have been following the career of owner, Christos Cjoncari, for 20 years now, we wanted to find out how he does it. When we first met, he was in his late teens, a waiter at Kali Parea, a popular fish place in Nea Erythraia. He was so engaging, that we were disappointed when one day he wasn’t there.
“Oh, Christos? He’s opened his own place, To Koralli, also in Erythraia. Here’s the address.”
By that time, 2006, he was 24, married with the first of his three kids. To Koralli was a fish taverna he had opened with his best man and dear friend, Costas Tzoubas. We became regulars, telling our friends, and feasting on fried red mullet and grilled bream, braised vegetable salads, steamed mussels and shrimp saganaki (with tomato and feta) – classic comfort food from the sea – finishing off with a mound of perfectly fried loukoumades (doughnut puffs with honey), offered on the house.
To Koralli is still going strong with customers who know what they like and don’t wish to experiment – but now that we have sampled Christos’ latest endeavor, Porphyra is where we are taking our food-obsessed friends.
The menu’s mouth-watering options are endless, but perennial gems include marinated anchovies, creamy taramosalata (fish roe dip), monkfish with orzo, seafood risotto with cuttlefish ink, tempura-like crawfish tails and the crispy fried red mullet we could never resist back at To Koralli. On top of all those favorites, there is a good selection of fish for grilling as well as raw oysters and clams. Even the fava and fried zucchini sticks seem tastier here than almost anywhere else. And all at very reasonable prices.
Knowing a little of Christos’ culinary background, when we ask him how he ended up on this path, his answer could not have been more of a surprise.
“There are two lagoons in Heimarra near where I grew up and I used to fish – with a spear – from the time I was about six,” he says.
Heimarra or Himara lies in southern Albania, what the Greeks call Northern Epirus, and has a population of primarily Orthodox Christians. “We were well off at first. My father was a vet,” Christos tells us about his childhood in Albania. But after the death of Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator who had ruled the country with an iron fist for 40 years, Christos says the resulting unrest destroyed his family’s way of life.
“There were days when all we had to eat was a slice of bread with salt or sugar and water,” he says. “There was nothing to buy, and I started working in the fields when I was eight. As soon as things started to improve, pyramid schemes wiped out everything again, and my father borrowed 100,000 drachmas to pay a taxi to take me to his sister in Athens and get me away from the civil war. I was 15.”
“I found work as a gardener’s assistant and then earned more money loading and unloading 80-kilo oxygen tanks for a company in Athens,” he continues. “I only weighed 40 kilos myself but I was strong and willing to do anything.” After several months, Christos had earned enough money to pay back his father’s loan, but an ill-fated taxi ride from Piraeus landed him at a police station. “I still spoke broken Greek,” Christos explains, “and the driver suspected that I had no papers.” He was deported back to Albania, but turned around and used the loan money to take another taxi back to Athens.
This time, he was luckier. When he showed up to apply for a butcher’s assistant gig in Erythraia that he’d gotten wind of, the butcher took one look at him and said: “You shouldn’t be lifting 150-kilo sides of beef. You should be a waiter.” He introduced Christos to the owners of Kali Parea and, well, the rest is history.
At the time, Kali Parea was just a rudimentary café where men would go to watch football, play backgammon, and sip an ouzo or a coffee with a bare minimum of nibbles. According to Christos, things took off in ’98 when the café started offering little fish – anchovies, sardines, etc. – that were such a hit they turned the café into a taverna specializing in fried fish and seafood.
“The family invited me to stay with them, tips were good, I began to send money home . . . I can’t begin to describe or repay the love I received. And when the space that we turned into Koralli became available, they were very supportive. We cooked the same things at first but our customers told us they’d like more big fish, grilled and baked, not just fried.
“That’s how we work. We listen to our customers. Now, at Porphyra, we introduce a new dish or two every couple of weeks, and if it’s a success we keep it, but only if it wins raves.” Christos presents us with a ruby red shrimp risotto cooked with beets and walnuts that is the latest candidate. We try to give it the attention it deserves as he completes his story.
The menu’s mouth-watering options are endless, but perennial gems include marinated anchovies, creamy taramosalata, monkfish with orzo, seafood risotto with cuttlefish ink…
“Our chef here is one of the best fish cooks in Athens,” he says about his cousin, Ioannis Verdalis, who is also from Christos’ village. Ioannis started out in a pizzeria in Chios, and now shapes Porphyra’s menu with the help of customers. It’s Christos who worked on the concept, chose the spot and décor, and continues to bring in customers.
We gaze around at the attractive, spacious dining area, its blue and white chairs and table settings; the tiles with the same motif, the spare but delightful nautical elements, the mural of a pink fish, and notice too how spotless the place is, how meticulous the masked waiters are as they prepare for a late lunch gathering, and how congenial and polite they are. We also think how ironic it is that this welcoming place occupies the site of a former police station.
Christos himself never sits still. Even on quiet weekdays, he’s attentive to his few customers, while on busy weekends, he will take the orders and even serve some of the dishes. His personality – warm smile, kind eyes, engaging manner – is a major reason why we and so many others keep coming to his restaurants.
Porphyra is not perfect. Its location on the corner of two busy streets makes it noisier than one would like. Greeks generally have no problem with noise and brilliantly make more of it to dull the traffic. To those with a weaker noise constitution, weekdays are a better bet, and there is ample seating inside and out. You will also be rewarded with those loukoumades, which are not available when there are too many diners. Meals can also be ordered for takeaway.
When we asked Christos about the name, he said he asked a fisherman friend to come up with something unfamiliar, that would provoke curiosity. He chose well. For, in ancient times and now in Melissia, Porphyra still means quality, something special and different, but we don’t have to move in imperial circles to appreciate it.