The pandemic hit Athens, in early 2020, at a time of transition for Antonis Liolis. With many years’ experience in the food and beverage industry – after working in popular Athenian bars he went on to own a bar of his own and later two Thai restaurants, one in the Petralona neighborhood and the other on the island of Serifos – he was plotting his next move, and the first lockdown gave him time to think and dream and plan.
Feeling nostalgic for his mom’s cooking, Antonis ultimately decided to focus on Greek cuisine. So he went on the hunt for a cook and the right location for his new restaurant, to be named Tzoutzouka (τζουτζούκα, a slang term for a woman who is cute, sweet and loveable). He was immediately charmed by Rouf, a humble neighborhood southwest of Omonia Square, not far from central Athens and on the way to Piraeus. The former industrial area and working-class neighborhood has several abandoned or empty buildings, preserving the flair of old Athens that can be so hard to find nowadays.
On one of his visits to the neighborhood last year, he saw two empty spaces, one on the corner and the other right next to it, with an area for outdoor seating. The full-length glass windows on the front side of the shops reminded him of old-school kafeneia (coffee houses) or meze joints. Antonis immediately felt it was the right spot, and decided to join the two into one large space.
As for the cook, Antonis found her last summer, in between the two lockdowns, when he visited the island of Zakynthos. It was love at first bite – he was dining out at a restaurant and couldn’t get enough of the food, so much so that he asked to meet the cook. This is how he became acquainted with Argyro Koutsou, a dynamic and charming woman. She’s not a trained chef, instead trusting her instinct and natural talent, which is part of her appeal – Antonis believes that although men occupy most professional kitchens around the world, we learned how to eat from women, our mothers and grandmothers, and it’s their food that we miss. What matters most is the love and energy the cook “puts” into the food, which in turn truly nourishes the eater and can evoke emotions and memories.
Argyro grew up in Athens around food. Her father was a fisherman, and her brother is a fishmonger with a shop in the northern suburb of Maroussi. She spent a lot of her childhood in the kitchen, and later decided to make cooking her profession. For several years she worked mostly in seasonal jobs, at restaurants on different islands during the summer months. When she and Antonis met, they immediately realized they spoke the same food language and were both passionate about quality ingredients. So, as simple as that, they agreed to work together.
With a cook secured, Antonis began work on the two spaces in Rouf, both of which were in pretty bad shape. It became his mission during the lockdown this past winter. “[Working on the restaurant] is what mentally saved me,” he said, laughing. “Everyday I woke up at 7 and I had a place to go, to work all day and feel productive and creative. I returned home, late and exhausted, and that’s how I passed the second lockdown.”
Finally, on May 14, everything was ready, and almost as soon as restaurants were able to reopen after the lockdown, Tzoutzouka made its debut. When we visited on a recent Thursday afternoon, Antonis was there to greet us – his excellent hosting skills, backed by years of experience, were on display. He explained that the menu is based on seasonal products and thus will be changing every three months. “We are just starting to serve Greek salad because Arotria farm [on the island of Euboea], where we source our tomatoes, hadn’t harvested them yet. They will be arriving this week,” he said.
The menu is simple yet creative, and it’s clear that they have done solid research on both the ingredients they’re using and the producers they source them from. Scanning the options, we caught sight of mackerel, pork neck, beef tail, bird livers, lamb, trout and wild greens – further proof that the true essence of Greek cuisine is the creativity and simplicity with which we dress simple, humble and affordable ingredients.
When [Argyro] and Antonis met, they immediately realized they spoke the same food language and were both passionate about quality ingredients. So, as simple as that, they agreed to work together.
First came zymoto (which translates literally as “kneaded”), traditional sourdough bread from Mama Psomi, a bakery in Koukaki, near the Acropolis. To properly enjoy our bread, we ordered taramosalata, the classic Greek fish roe dip that here they mix with cuttlefish ink, which gives it a gray color and a unique aftertaste. We then got a mix of plates, with horta tsigariasta – amaranth greens stir-fried in olive oil with chunky pieces of onion, tomatoes and delicious feta from Kefalonia – being one of our favorites.
Equally tasty was the summery green salad with fresh Greek crab and sprouts dressed in a light olive oil, mustard and lemon vinaigrette. The steamed mussels in wine, lemon, garlic and mustard were also delicious and a great dish to share with others. A typical dish found in most Greek tavernas, the fava (creamed yellow split peas) here is topped with fresh pickled calamari – a delightful combination. Overall we were very impressed with the quality of the seafood, which is no surprise since it’s sourced straight from Argyro’s fishmonger brother.
Among the most popular mains here are the meatballs (made of pork, beef and lamb) in tomato sauce served over traditional hylopites (a type of traditional Greek pasta) and topped with 36-month-aged Parmesan. Hylopites make another appearance on the menu in a new dish featuring slow cooked free-range rooster, eggplant and zucchini, served with ladotyri, a famous cheese from Zakynthos.
As for Argyro’s favorite dish, it’s currently the trahana, which is sourced from Arachova, a mountainous village near Delphi that’s famous for such pasta-like products. She prepares it in a different way than what we’re used to, more like a risotto with mascarpone, smoked mackerel, lemon thyme, and spicy olive oil. The result is balanced and delicious.
For dessert we tried the tiramisu and the white chocolate and lemon mousse; neither traditionally Greek, yet both provided the perfect light end to the meal.
Drawing on Antonis’ deep knowledge, the wine list (all bottled wines, as there’s no house wine) consists mainly of small Greek producers, with a couple of exceptions from Italy and Argentina. The tsikoudia (like grappa) is from Crete, and the beers are from microbreweries around Greece.
The prices are very reasonable, and the dishes are well suited to sharing. We recommend asking Antonis or any of the waiters about the best alcohol pairings – he steered us in the right direction, making it a memorable meal. But don’t take our word for it: Tzoutzouka seems to be full every night. So best to book a table before you go, especially since only outdoor seating is permitted at the moment.
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