Even though Athens is fairly close to the sea, there are times when we crave a quick island getaway – to taste the best tomato salads of the Cyclades, or one of the many pungent cheeses of Naxos, or real smoked apaki from Crete, but we don’t have the time (or resources) to venture out of the city limits. That’s when we head to To Hohlidaki, an ouzeri experience that feels like a tour of Greece from the comfort of a quaint Athenian neighborhood. We’ve been several times, and each visit gives a new picture of what the country has to offer.
This ouzeri is steeped in history, and owner Alexandros Giolma takes every opportunity to mingle the past with the present. His grandfather, Othello, was part of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, arriving in Greece with nothing more than a suitcase and lots of Byzantine recipes and traditions. In fact, Greek dishes like yellow dolmades, stuffed mussels, and lakerda, a salty preserved fish, all originated in Turkey and became popular through these immigrant populations. Othello met Alexandros’s grandmother, Vana, and when they eventually opened their first restaurant, they had a clear goal in mind. The couple wanted to remind everyone of the dishes and drinks found on the shores of the Bosphorus, bringing a taste of Costantinopoli, or modern-day Istanbul, to Greece.
To Hohlidaki has existed in Athens since 1986. When Alexandros’s grandparents first opened up shop in Vrilissia, a neighborhood to the north of the city, they had a simple kitchen and a simple menu stocked with simple recipes sourced from family members, from lamb tongue to Cretan dakos salad. But this old store was torn down in 1997 to make way for the Athens National Road, a major connective highway constructed for the upcoming 2004 Olympic Games. They opened another store in Chalandri, another northern neighborhood, in 1992, but shuttered in 2008. The current location, in Neo Psychiko, took off in 2006. It’s smaller than the original, but it was founded with the clear goal of selling even greater varieties of ouzo.
The ouzeri is a fairly common Greek drinking institution, one that centers around just one or two varieties of ouzo that traditionally come in casks from local producers. However, in the new location, Alexandros has brought the traditional ouzeri mentality to a new level, stocking To Hohlidaki with around 250 different bottles from all around Greece. They line the window sills, creating kaleidoscopic patterns on the floor when the sun breaks through the windows. They sit several deep on the top of a cold cut display case, obscuring views into the kitchen.
But at To Hohlidaki, even non-ouzo drinkers will find something to sip on. The menu also features some excellent raki from Crete, as well as beer and house wine.
Speaking of the menu: it consists of separate hard-bound books for drinks, food, and cheeses. There are also occasionally special menus that hone in on recipes from different regions, like the Cycladic islands or the food of Crete. They form an homage to all the history and culture present – but not always so explicitly explained – in Greek food. Each dish on the menu lists its origin, and the description tells you what to expect on your plate, and sometimes even the occasional details about which family member the recipe came from. One of the most special entries? The kolokithakia bastounakia, or the fried zucchini sticks, which according to the menu, come from Chalandri, and the description includes the dish’s beginnings as a staple at the Chalandri To Hohlidaki location.
Cold meze comes to your table on a giant tray, piled one on top of the other in an overlapping puzzle of salty dishes meant to compliment your ouzo or raki. These change with the seasons; now, as spring transitions into summer, you might still catch the marinated agkinares, or artichokes, that are sprinkled in dill and so tender they fall apart immediately in your mouth (we always grab two plates of these when they’re around).
Even if you’re fairly familiar with Greek cuisine, the regional varieties might surprise you. Case in point: the kaparosalata made up of capers, caper leaves, and onions, and a small plate with six bolboi, or pickled onion bulbs, a traditional ouzeri food of Crete.
And this doesn’t even cover the variety of hot mains that you can order after you’ve had your fill of the salty and pickled starters. The hot dishes include midia, or mussels that are smoked and swimming in a broth made up of olive oil and vinegar. And meat lovers shouldn’t skip out on the light and herby keftedakia (meatballs), from a recipe that traces back to Alexandros’ grandmother.
The plates keep coming, the raki continues to flow, and as the sun traces outlines of the garden’s olive tree on the tile floor, you’ll find that To Hohlidaki is a classic Greek spot that truly highlights the best of what the Greek kitchen has to offer. Not only in the endless variety of dishes, but the atmosphere, the respect for tradition, and the importance of family. It’s a place you’ll go back to again and again, with something new to discover each time.
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