Eating and drinking offers a unique kind of pleasure. Even the smallest bites or sips can have immense powers, creating moments so tasty or satisfying that they can instantly lift our mood, and memories that stay with us for years to come. I call it “a blessing of the senses.”
In 2022, we finally saw things falling back into place – maybe not entirely, as there are other issues the world must deal with, but it was a year to make more of these memories, travel, socialize, share again, and simply enjoy. Athens has seen record-high numbers of tourism, and the tourist season has been greatly extended compared to other pre-covid years. Though some restaurants had to close down during the pandemic, now, dozens of new ones are constantly popping up. Everything is full and busy; cafes, restaurants, bars, bakeries, you name it. It feels like the city is alive again! Thinking back on this past year, I try to retrace all these unique moments of gastronomic hedonism (to use a Greek term to describe the sensation), from a perfectly brewed coffee, a divine sorbet, something utterly simple such as a beautifully ripened tomato drizzled with the right olive oil and sprinkled with the perfect wild oregano and sea salt, to something much more elaborate, such as a fancy dish at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Volvi’s Old-School Souvlaki
There is something about the old-school souvlaki – the famous Greek street food – at Volvi, the small joint located in Athens’s central meat market. It’s the real thing – one that reminds me of the souvlaki of my childhood! Simply made and small in size, made with the tastiest pita bread, filled with just the right stuff: skewered pork, tasty tomatoes, and thinly sliced red onions mixed with coarsely chopped parsley. The pork, seasoned simply with salt and wild oregano, is perfectly charcoal-grilled (as is the pita bread), giving it a wonderful smoky taste. One is not enough, and a cold beer is essential to enjoy alongside it.
Courtyard Dining at Ama Lachi
Ama Lachi in Exarchia is a favorite summertime place to eat. Apart from the excellent and reasonably priced food, its location makes it a must-visit venue. Dining in the leafy courtyard of this old public primary school is an experience on its own. Apart from their regular menu, they offer a separate list of daily specials. This summer I was lucky to taste their slow-cooked gourounopoula, a classic dish from the Peloponnese which features slow-cooked whole pig that is so perfectly prepared that the meat falls off the bone and the skin becomes the ultimate crackling. Simply seasoned with salt, pepper and oregano, slow cooked to perfection, with a side of lemony, oven baked potatoes.
Tarsanas on Tinos Island
I have been going to Tarsanas in the port of Tinos island (the setting for one of our culinary trips) for over a decade. In a prime location (when not too windy!), with a beautiful sunset view, this seafood restaurant is always guaranteed to satisfy. In addition to the fresh grilled fish which you can pick out yourself in the kitchen, this place has some of my favorite preserved wild artichokes – one of the island’s specialties and my own all-time favorite. Wild artichokes grow abundantly here and all of the local restaurants include this delicacy on their menus. Here the artichoke hearts are nice and firm, very flavorful and are served drizzled with fine extra virgin olive oil. Another must at Tarsanas is the tomato salad. It sounds simple but is far from it – they pick the finest, sweetest local tomatoes, mix them with even sweeter teardrop tomatoes and local capers, fleur de sel, good quality extra virgin olive oil, and a hint of local oregano. It’s perfection reached in the humblest way.
Al Pastor at Poncho Tacos
Poncho Tacos opened in Karytsi square in the center of Athens during the pandemic – finally, a truly authentic taqueria here in the city center. It’s a tiny little place owned by Poncho Alvarez from Mexico, who offers just a couple of different tacos and quesadillas, but he does everything perfectly, and made from scratch! The tacos al pastor in his handmade corn tortillas are divine. Similar to Greek gyros, here the pork is marinated with spices and smoked guajillo peppers, then slow-roasted on the spit with almost-caramelized pineapple. The meat is then shaved into thin slices and served on a freshly cooked tortilla with a few chunks of pineapple. The tacos are garnished with chopped onions and fresh cilantro and served along Poncho’s choice of handmade sauces: salsa verde, chipotle or habanero (and best enjoyed with a shot of Pocho’s mezcal or a tequila).
Afoi Asimakopouloi’s Goat Milk Yogurt
Afoi Asimakopouloi (Asimakopouloi Bros) is an old-school dairy and pastry shop based in the downtown neighborhood of Exarchia since 1915. In addition to their famous pastries prepared with house-made butter, the shop is particularly well known for their small-production yogurt, made with high quality milk sourced from small farmers in the outskirts of Athens. The goat milk yogurt is especially delicious, prepared in small clay pots, with a creamy, light texture. I like to top it with a spoonful of thyme honey and coarsely chopped walnuts.
Greek Natural Wine at Tanini Agapi Mou
Tanini Agapi Mou (Tannin my Love), is a cute, vibrant and youthful wine bar in Exarchia. The atmosphere is laid back, the service is friendly and knowledgeable, and their list of wines is extensive and affordable. Here, during summer, I tasted a bottle of Kydonitsa by Tsimbidis Estate in Monemvasia. Kydonitsa is a rare native white variety from the region of Laconia in the Peloponnese. It is a fresh wine, ideal for summer with beautiful aromas of bergamot and quince, with a pleasant acidity and beautiful aftertaste, that is ideally enjoyed quite chilled (between 8-10 degrees C).
Inspired Dishes at CTC
CTC in Keramikos is one of the most renowned fine dining restaurants in Athens for cotemporary Greek haute cuisine, boasting several awards and a Michelin star. Chef owner Alexis Tsiotinis and his team prepare creative, seasonal tasting menus using top ingredients, sophisticated flavors and always with stunning presentation. Among my favorite dishes here this summer was the calamari pesto: tagliatelle made entirely out of fresh calamari. The chef has achieved not just the perfect shape and size of tagliatelle, but also the texture. The “tagliatelle” are cooked in a tomato broth along with pine nuts, garlic and parmesan (the basic pesto trio). The dish is inspiring; light and flavorful, highlighting with a perfect balance every single ingredient used.
– Carolina Doriti
Pame Vaggeli, an Andros All Star
We spend every summer on the island of Andros, usually from June through October, and as we get older and the price of benzina rises, we tend to explore less and stay closer to home when we eat out. I’ve written in the past about some of our favorite Andros eateries and they are still favorites, but this summer a taverna on the waterfront of the main port of Gavrio became our go-to place, whether it was just a table for two, or four or even six. Pame Vaggeli, or “Let’s Go to Vaggeli’s,” is not a new addition to the island. Vaggelis Lygizou opened his first restaurant in 1979. He loved cooking from an early age and paid close attention to what his mother and grandmother were up to in the kitchen. Since then, he has aimed for perfecting traditional dishes, using the best ingredients he can find. “You will not find a bruised tomato or anything past its prime in our dishes,” he says. Vaggelis’ classics also benefit from the refining touch of his lovely wife, chef Cristina Bratuleanu from Romania, who also, I belatedly discovered, loves to make sweets, including French macaroons.
I could not possibly select a “best bite” from their extensive menu. Would it be the exquisite baked sardines we had at our first lunch there in June, which linger in the memory, or the moussaka, perhaps the best we’ve ever eaten, served in its own ceramic pot? Or the kid in lemon sauce, the pork in wine sauce, the grilled mushrooms, the house salad, the fava with caramelized onion . . .? Instead, I choose Pame Vaggelis this year for providing consistently delicious food all summer long, at reasonable prices, in pleasant surroundings, always with a smile, and several best bites every time.
Fouskothalassies: Traditional Products of Andros
When I stumbled upon this small shop tucked next to one of Batsi’s most popular tavernas, it never occurred to me that virtually everything in it was made by one woman. I pored over the shelves filled with jars and bottles of different shapes and sizes, their contents as colorful as a Renaissance stained glass window, many of them decorated with seashells. The savory delicacies occupied the left side – capers, sun-dried tomatoes, pickled artichoke hearts, olives of every type, to name but a few – while on the right, among the spoon sweets, I saw less common ingredients like pomegranate, rose petal, pinkie-sized eggplants, green walnuts, as well as all the usual lemon, orange, cherry, grape, strawberry etc etc. At the back of the shop stood an array of liqueur bottles, again in both familiar and unusual flavors, some bags of trahana and different shapes of homemade pasta, lots of sachets containing dried herbs, plus a small fridge containing local soft cheese. Spread out on a table in the center, sweets beckoned to be tasted: sugar-coated marzipan pyramids, pastelli (think energy bars) with almonds, sesame seeds, walnuts, and even figs, as well as loukoumia (Turkish delight), mini-baklavas and numerous other goodies I can’t recall. A few weeks later, when I interviewed the owner, Maria Lipirou-Sirigou, for a CB story about figs, I discovered that she herself creates all these wonders, sometimes with a team of other women, throughout the year, taking advantage of each season’s bounty. She even spends each morning making cheese with milk from the family goats! Any one of these treats could be a best bite because they are all made with passion and a deep love for Greek tradition.
You can find Maria Lipirou-Sirigou’s, Fouskothalassies Traditional Products of Andros, Batsi, Andros, next to Stamati’s taverna. Tel. +30 6984155264.
New-School Souvlaki at Nomsy Kebab Artisans
I have a confession to make. Traditional souvlaki leaves me quite cold. A few years ago, a portion of pita wrapped around some gristly meat oozing with tzatziki and onions did nothing to change my mind. But a visit to Nomsy Kebab Artisans in June whetted my appetite for more. Theirs is souvlaki with a difference. Everything is made from scratch, with the best ingredients, and such variety, with kebabs for every taste bud – from Black Angus to mushrooms, from chicken to tofu and halloumi, along with a tempting array of side dishes, including an ineffably light and creamy smoked fava. The options are not only Greek but also include Latin, Italian and Anatolian flavors, with toppings or sides of guacamole, mozzarella and hummus. My meal there was so beautifully presented too. Not a fast-food wrap pressed into my hand, but a large platter of meat, salads, sauces and dips to linger over. And what made everything taste even better was the Nomsy philosophy: the absence of plastic, the simplicity of the attractive surroundings, their creative tweaking of old favorites and their shunning of easy and often unhealthy off-the-shelf products. They even make their own ketchup. If they weren’t located on the other side of Athens, I’d be there at least once a week.
Esophy: Mediterranean Inspired Chocolates
Last, but not least, a best sip from this past year. My favorite chocolate shop, Esophy has moved out of my neighborhood and opened opposite the A/B supermarket in Erythraia in mid October. When I passed by on Halloween, they welcomed me with a mug of hot chocolate made from chocolate flakes (dark or milk). Forget powdered cocoa. This is divine. Worth the detour, as Michelin would say. You can order to go or take a bag home with you.
– Diana Farr Louis
Published on December 14, 2022
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