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Dining in Athens


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#31 Bux

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Posted 17 August 2004 - 09:26 AM

Great posts. You manage to blow away some of my prejudices of Greek food and reinforce others. I would have never expected great oysters. I am a fan of cold water oysters and that may account for part of my prejudice there. In France, I've never found oysters from the Mediterranean to compare with those from the Atlantic. So it's "who would have guessed" and "why did no one tell me." Alas, wonderful, but overcooked, fish is a complaint I've heard elsewhere.

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#32 Busboy

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Posted 18 August 2004 - 02:20 AM

Great posts. You manage to blow away some of my prejudices of Greek food and reinforce others. I would have never expected great oysters. I am a fan of cold water oysters and that may account for part of my prejudice there. In France, I've never found oysters from the Mediterranean to compare with those from the Atlantic. So it's "who would have guessed" and "why did no one tell me." Alas, wonderful, but overcooked, fish is a complaint I've heard elsewhere.

Eye candy ... Women's Beach Volleyball ... 6'4" (+) blond Austrian Beach Volley competitor, then you had to blow the whole image with "him."

The night we ate at Milos, the waiter was bragging that a French couple had sampled the Greek oysters. After the meal the couple told the waiter: "we always thought that France had the best oysters in the world. Now we think Greece does." Their taste was distinctive enough that surely some who like oysters would like other oysters better -- just as some prefer Jonathans and some prefer McIntosh (to keep it an apples-to-apples comparison). And they were certainly helped by the fact that, like everything at Milos, they were spectacularly fresh.

Without getting too off-topic, let me just say this about women's beach volleyball: if the Chinese women are playing, tune in. They ain't wearing Mao Suits any more.

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#33 hillvalley

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Posted 18 August 2004 - 02:54 PM

Who wants pictures!!!! Or even better, a live one brought home in your suitcase. He can live off the olive oil and wine in your suitcase :smile:


So what is the food like at the events? Is Greek stadium food as bad as ours? I heard at the shot put they only sold H2O 'cause that's all they had at the first olympics.
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#34 Busboy

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Posted 20 August 2004 - 09:47 AM

Greetings from Athens! I actually figured at least one eGulleter would make it over for the Games. I hope no one avoided them because of (what I thought was) the very unfair press coverage over the last couple of years. You're missing a good party. After a slow start, the buzz is building, and the city is simply more liveable and friendly than it has ever been (old-timers tell me). And, you can get reservations at the top spots.

Anyway, more of my hopefully helpful and/or amusing tour through the dining rooms of Athens. A long one, maybe you should get a cup of coffee...

EXARCHIA, VICTORIA and OMONIA

Omonia square is an Athens’ crossroads, the local equivalent to Times Square. It’s where 400,000 Greeks gathered to celebrate Greece’s Euro Cup victory. The square itself is surrounded by tall, modern hotels and office buildings, and the neighborhood is a shopping and government district, a pleasant, lively and uncommonly well-lit part of town and, consequently, of little interest to me.

A couple blocks south and you hit the old part of the city. First the central market, then the hookers and narrow streets at north end of Psyrri; then immigrants and their restaurants, shops and sweatshops; then club kids and their clubs; then tourists and middle-class Greeks and Athenian mall rats as Psyrri bumps up against Monastiraki, the Plaka and, inevitably and delightfully, the Acropolis.

Of at one angle is Kolonaki, where the shopping tilts decidedly upscale and where I hope to spend some time in later this trip -- if my friends will stop going to the same lame tavernas for dinner every night. Due north of Omonia is Εξαρχια (Greek keyboards are fun) or Exarchia (ex ARK ee a).

There’s a fine line between gritty and chic these days and Exarchia – well, I’d be lying if I said Exarchia even got close chic very often. You could see it as a grim little neighborhood crammed with five story concrete flatblocks centered around a square populated by stray dogs and metalhead drunks. But Exarchia takes its dominant cue from the Polytechnica, where the murder of demonstrating students sparked the overthrow of the colonels in 1974. There’s a funk to it, the quarter is full of used record stores, book shops and handcrafted goods. The open-air movie theater was showing Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou,” Keaton’s “The General” and, bizarrely, "What Did You do in the War, Daddy?" The food is cheap, and some of it is good. It’s my home until September and to me it feels like a second-hand leather jacket that fits just right, and I enjoy wrapping it around me and heading out to the tavernas to learn Greek one poutiri krassi [glass of wine] at a time.

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Exarchia

The neighborhood of Victoria is, apparently, down at the heels once you penetrate it very deeply. Much of it is immigrant blocks populated by Albanians, Africans and Arabs drawn by Greece’s growing economy – the most robust in the EU since 2000, and stoked by Olympic construction projects thirsty for unskilled labor – but not yet fully a part of it. The area around the subway stop is pleasant – moreso as renovation of the area winds down. I haven’t had a chance to explore it fully yet, but I have stumbled across a couple of places of note.

I don’t know who to thank, but the three best restaurants I’ve found since moving to Athens for the month have all been curled up in my little corner of Exarchia/Victoria, where Alexandras Avenue meets 28 Oktovriou Street across from the park and around the corner from the (great) National Archeological Museum.

The first, "best," and –initially -- least interesting restaurant is in my hotel, the Park Hotel. Their top floor has been given over to a fine dining spot called ST’ASTRA, which I believe means “the stars.” To actually see the stars, you have to go up to the rooftop, which does not have the fine dining menu, but which does have an all-the-ouzo-you-can-drink-plus-mezedes (tapas) twice a week. I’m surprised I haven’t been there yet.

If you can’t see the stars from from St’Astra, you can see damn near everything else. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer spectacular views of Athens’ ivory flat-blocks rolling up the local hillsides like sea foam climbing the rocks. My favorite view is of Lycabettus Hill, which hasn’t the Acropolis’ history but, perhaps because of that, seems to have a stronger hold on the local’s heart as a landmark and navigation aid. The interior designer wisely decided that the view was the St’ Astra’s astra, and framed it with clean lines, a wooden floor and some bizarre and beautiful art glass chandeliers.

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If you can see this view, you're two hours early for dinner (Greek time). Don't worry, it sparkles at night, too.

Though it advertises itself as kind of French-Med fusion, it’s really more French than Med. You don’t find much veal in the local tavernas, and cream sauce is not native to these latitudes.

That’s one reason I didn’t give the perfectly cooked veal loin with girolles and that cream sauce the respect it deserved, at first. I found fault, too, with the “Mediterranean” portion of that meal: a tossed salad with a lime-ish dressing and langoustines. On the one hand, it was woefully overdressed. On the other, the langoustines were sweet, fresh and impeccably cooked – another sign of sure hands behind the line.

And, though a dining-companion’s duck, in a honey-red wine sauce, was compelling both before and after I risked the raised eyebrow to ask for a piece (some share food, some don’t), I was looking for something more Greek that night and I came away from St’Astra vaguely disappointed.

But the other night, after a run of mediocre taverna food, I was ready for something fresh and in the neighborhood, so we ended up at St’Astra. Again, the main course seemed more “continental” than Greek, lamb tenderloin with a simple but well-turned reduction sauce. But, after three weeks ion Greece, I didn’t mind taking a field trip to France, at least for dinner. My friends both had fish – one pronounced his John Dory the best dish he’d had at the hotel. The revelation of the night, however was prawns served in a kind of orange-spiked tomato soup, with stewed aubergine providing an excellent excuse for finishing the broth once the prawns were gone.

The wine list is in Greek, which can be troubling, but most bottles are under 30 €, a pleasant contrast to most American restaurants of similar caliber. Don’t expect a great deal of guidance from the servers, who are attentive and attractive – one half suspects they were chosen by the interior designer to match the décor -- but are most certainly not sommeliers-in-training.

Both times I’ve been there, the manager has dropped by to gather our opinion of the place. My friends have looked at me, horrified at the thought that I would say anything other than “it was wonderful,” and leave, so I haven’t. But if I’d had, I would have thanked him for an excellent meal, asked for a more help with the wine, and suggested that the kitchens’ strength may lie in pursuing local attitudes and ingredients a little more aggressively .

St’Astra: in the Park Hotel; 10, Alexandras Ave., 10682; 1/8832711-19, 0030/1/8832811-14 http://www.parkhotel...te/stastra.html Apps: 10-15 €, Main Courses in the 25-30 € range.

Once you get the need for sauce out of your system, you can walk a block from St’Astra for a little spice at the, sadly, closed-for-vacation, ALEXANDRIA restaurant.

Alexandria is all about spice. Winters, when dinner is served inside, the restaurant smells like a thriller set in The Casbah – roast cumin and cardamom and blended aromatics rushing up to greet you as the plate is set down, accumulating in your system until you feel that you have been as thoroughly spiced – even if you are not as well stewed – as the lamb.

The food ranges from familiar Middle Eastern Fare to Greek, with a solid core of Egyptian foods (so I am told – don’t hold me to this). In addition to the cunningly and assertively deployed spices, fruits are strewn about liberally and one finds yogurt everywhere.

Now that tomatoes are in season you can begin with a fattoush salad just like you get in the U.S., but more muscular and tart with garlic and vinegar. The owner describes ads – a lentil soup – as one of her favorite dishes, and it is easy to see why. The pureed lentils and the roast cumin weave themselves together seamlessly, each complementing the other and seeming to gather flavor as you eat, until by the end you’re obsessively wiping invisible molecules out of the bowl with your pita, hoping for one last hit.

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Ads: lentils done right.

Vegetarians might follow the ads with the aubergine moussaka I had one night, two slabs – no other word is accurate – of eggplant topped with a tomato sauce that was almost more onion than tomato and dusted with cardamom (?), topped with a dollop of that great Greek yogurt.

Lamb stewed with fruit and almonds was simply spectacular. The first taste grabs your attention – succulent lamb and dried fruit laying down a solid baseline – and then the spices begin to play wild scales on your palate like a night with Diz in Tunisia. I’m a pretty good French/Italian/New (and old) American cook around the house, but this is a whole different language.

Another favorite: kebap hala. If you’ve eaten a gyro in the US, you have a basic idea of the dish – spicy ground lamb, yougurt, pita. But every aspect of the dish is executed simultaneously at greater volume, and with greater delicacy. The lamb is richer, but with a lighter texture; the spicing more nuanced, but added with a more determined hand. The yougurt gets some tomato, for brightness. And pita, here on its home turf, is just better. Yum.

Summers, the tables are spread out into an airy passageway between two buildings with large black and white tiles below and fabric umbrellas above. Given the informal – but reasonably efficient -- service, and the owner’s propensity to have a smoke or a glass of wine with her regulars (while her husband cooks), dining at Alexandria is a lot like being invited to eat on someone’s rather elegant patio.

Alexandria: Metsovou 13 - Mouseio (Museum) Tel. 30 1 8210004. First courses under 5 €, main courses 8-12 €. Wines 15-22 €/bottle.

PATCUTE is a little one-note esteatorio right on Victoria Square, but its one hell of a note: roast meat, served quickly, simply and deliciously.

This is an Atkins-dieters dream – I know, because the ones I am traveling with are now addicts.

The first night I was there they were out of the lamb’s head, so I got, of course, the pig’s head. Now, at Clos des Gourmands, in Paris, where I first ate pig's head they remove the meat before serving it up. At Patcute, they turn the head upside down on the chopping block and cleave the thing in half, leaving you to pick the meat from the bones and fragments on your plate. If you’ve picked crab, you have a rough idea of trials and rich rewards of eating pig's head this way. At one point, I thought I had speared a particularly large and tender morsel but when I looked at it; it looked back at me and I said to myself, “I ain’t eating no eyeballs.”

These days, I like to go up to the glass – one of those warming things that keeps ducks in Chinese restaurants warm without drying them out – and ask “tee inay” – what is it? Of course, the answer is always the name of a dish, not a descriptor, so I just get whatever looks most likely to leave a greasy smile on my face.

One day it was kokoretsi – lamb flank wrapped around chunks of liver and a layer of fat, then roasted to a salty, herby, crusty perfection. Another day it was exochito – pork treated similarly, but wrapped around red bell peppers. And, finally, I had the pansetta. Not the round Italian style, but rectangular chunks of pork belly, fat and meat almost melting inside a smoky crust.

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I doesn't get any better than this. Note the whole lamb.

You don’t have to get the meat – there’s sausage, as well as the usual openers – a decent tzaziki, an indifferent fried cheese, assorted forgettable salads. They also put out a decent souvlaki, and their roast chicken is first rate.

There is a language barrier, but one we have overcome through our obvious affection for their food and their apparent delight at the three clown-suited (our alarmingly bright Olympic uniforms) regulars with credentials who come by -- in some combination – almost every day.

Patcute: Plattia Victoria (Victoria Square) 14 at Aristtelous 90; 8836355, 8836326. Lunch for three – salad and main course -- with a liter of (decent) wine: 34 €.

Note: directly next door there’s a small café whose atmosphere I find inexplicably delightful – I don’t know if it’s the lace tablecloths or the heaping saucer of meatballs, sausage and cucumbers that comes with a glass of wine – that’s well worth putting your head in, too.

Unfortunately, other ventures into this part of town have been less satisfying.

Giandes, which is mentioned in all the guidebooks, certainly offers up a setting that stands out even in a city full of delightful spaces. Here, you pass through a doorway off a busy pedestrian street to find yourself in a beautiful courtyard. Walls painted Mediterranean blue and burnt orange surround low-raised decking which flank, one step down, a tiled patio. Tiles and planking have been laid carefully around the trees growing up around you and the lighting is left at the lowest possible level. The feeling is open and intimate at the same time, and it is so pleasurable that the kitchen’s performance seems to be overlooked by its customers.

The chicken myma is a good idea marred by overcooking – chicken stewed with vinegar and raisons, served over rice spiced with cumin seeds that crunch delightfully in your mouth at every bite. Byzantine pork, too, was overcooked. Appetizers ranged from the common to the banal. It’s a pity that such a delightful setting is the scene of so much mediocre cooking, but the house wine is good and cheap.

[As an aside, I’d suggest that you are a fool to drink anything other than the house wine, often drawn directly from the barrel – at 75% of the restaurants in Greece. At most restaurants, the jump from the 8€ liter of house to the 18 €750 ml bottle is simply not justified. Of course, at some restaurants, the house wine is pretty much undrinkable, so there’s a risk either way. ]

One interesting note: after dinner one night, the house sent over a shot of something to settle our stomachs – not raki, not tsipourou, and not ouzo. Nope, it was mastika. Mastic, you may recall from an earlier post, is a flavoring/herbal remedy from the islands and mastika is a clear liquor made with the bark and root of this plant. Imagine the fresh, earthy, smell of dirt scooped up from the forest floor. Delightful – but imagine your drink smelt like that. Then imagine someone finished the drink with a drop or two of turpentine.

Yammas! To your health.

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At Giandes, you can eat with the kitties.

GIANDES, Valtetsiou 44 (Two blocks from Exarchia Square), Exarchia 20 €/person with wine

ROZALIA is another guidebook staple and another disappointment, noted here so you won’t be misled. Maybe I’m bitter – the waiter didn’t bring the tray of appetizers and allow me to select my own, as promised in the blizzard of tourist tip sheets blowing through Athens this summer. In fact, he didn’t bring anything for a long time. Perhaps you get that bit of showmanship inside the courtyard, but it was practically floodlit, so I chose a table actually in the street – just down the street from Giandes -- rather than tolerate the glare.

The squid I ordered turned out to be cuttlefish, but that’s a nuance I don’t expect always to make it through translation. If the cuttlefish is an example, nuance is not a Rozalia hallmark, anyway. In the same vein the spinach risotto, was boiled rice with spinach rather tham what you might expect. In either case, the meal was redeemed only by one of the many micro karafs [small caraffe, sometimes 250 ml, sometimes, 500 ml) of red house wine I’ve enjoyed in Athens, half a liter of fine plonk for 4 euros.

ROSALIA Valtetsiou 58 (just off the square) Exarchia 010/33 02 933 About 20€ with wine

Finally, IDEAL, which earned a “three-strikes and you’re out” ban for my otherwise helpful Rough Guide (taking food advice from Brits – what was I thinking?), is a businessmen’s-looking place just off Omonia Square. Uncommonly bright for a Greek restaurant, it has the virtue of a friendly and strangely efficient staff. This complements, on assumes, the Viennese feel, which is accomplished through liberal use of aprons and green jackets, and an interior design that Klimt might have thrown up if he’d come back as a decorator circa 1975: all art nouveau curls and flips, in bright yellow and contrasting orange and green.

As much as I wanted to like the place, I couldn’t. My pork cutlet was dry and the mushrooms canned. The only highlight was the ekmek cake, kind of dense spongecake, topped a sugar-honey syrup, mastic ice cream – much more delicate than the mastika – and pistachios. A nice way to close a forgettable meal.

IDEAL; Panepistimiou 46, Omonia, 010/33 03 000; 25€/person with wine

If you find yourself in the neighborhood and have a kitchen at your disposal, there’s a nice little market Saturdays in Exarchia, roughly at Eressou and Benaki. Trying to take pictures there will make you very unpopular, very fast. Why, I don’t know, the only thing I understood was the security guard saying “don’t photographs” and the grape-seller yelling “FBI, FBI.” The produce looks good, if not quite up to a lot here in the US – no heirloom tomatoes, for example, and not nearly the variety you get here. On the other hand, the fish was as fresh as I have ever seen, and much less expensive than Greek restaurants ask.

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A courgette blooms in Exarxhia.[B]

And the courgettes look beautiful. Southerners should be advised that okra is widely available (and warned that the men’s room at Alexandria restaurant seems to have a picture of General Sherman on it. Why, I don’t know.)

Edited by Busboy, 13 April 2007 - 01:04 PM.

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#35 ludja

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Posted 20 August 2004 - 12:23 PM

I was wonderfing if some egulleteers were over in Athens--happy to find your thread! :smile:

Thanks so much, for the great commentary and excellent photos. (Great captions too, I cracked up over, "you can eat with the kitties...). It's very entertaining and will also be a great resource before a trip over there.
"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"


#36 Busboy

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Posted 27 August 2004 - 10:22 AM

That bastard of a waiter threw me off the rooftop. Greeks like a good afternoon in the sun, but they like an evening with a cocktail or a frappe better, so the pool was being converted to a cafe. The sun was sliding down towards the top of Lycabettus hill and the meltemi winds had come up, strong enough that with the Stones playing "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" (hear me ringin, big bells toll/hear me singin' soft and low/I been beggin' on my knees/I been kickin', help me please) and the ouzo I'd knocked back dancing through my head, it almost felt like I was flying.

The smooth operation of the Games so far means my life has been relatively calm and occasionally delightful, as when hanging out with 400 of my closest friends -- including two rowers from the British heavyweight four and an epidemiologist from Atlanta -- in a sleazy bar off Monasteraki Square. Nonetheless, as the following essay will show, I have suffered, too.

Despite the sudden shock of below-deck exile, I am in an expansive mood. And so I offer the inside skinny on Olympic dining.

Before you read this, though, click on to this well-crafted little article on life in Athens this week. Nicely done, and an excuse to post a picture of one corner of the exquisitely crafted Calatrava roof.

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Well, the Olympic Games are drawing rapidly to a close and (cross fingers, knock on wood) none of the disasters predicted by the global media and various high-profile nay-sayers (I’m talking about you, Spitz) has come to pass. But, in the midst of the well-earned relief Olympic Organizers, athletes and ticket-holders are feeling (everybody else owes Athens and apology), it must be acknowledged that the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad are well short -- nay, disastrously short -- of world-class in one respect: the food.

The food is awful. In the organizing committee headquarters, in the Main Press Center, in the venues – even at receptions catered by non-sponsors and held off-campus – the food is almost utterly bereft of redeeming value.

How bad is it? IOC members have taken to complaining about food in the “Olympic Family” section of the venues. At a press briefing the other morning, a reporter complained vehemently about the spinach pie. The McDonalds in the Main Press Center is packed.

Why is this? I’m not sure. Part of it is the monopoly status granted the caterer and Olympic Sponsors; if it’s not made by Coke or Heineken, you ain’t drinking it. In a city where high-quality souvlakis are cheap and plentiful, snack bars sell pizza and hot dogs, two foods that the Greeks clearly do not “get.” And the Greek dishes seem to be manufactured en masse at an undisclosed location, where deranged alchemists have discovered a philosopher’s stone that turns cheese and spinach into phylo, ensuring that eating an Olympic cheese pie is a lot like opening an onion: once you get through all the layers, there’s no there there.

I saw the warning signs: I’ve been lunching for almost two years at the organizing committee’s headquarters, where I’ve given up on eating anything other than the Greek Salad. Imagine Bart Simpson’s cafeteria in Greece, and you have a good idea of the food: limp pasta, steamed frozen vegetables, frightening octopus, all served up by workers who looks like they’re on a work-release program.
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Like a bad flashback to junior high

Downstairs, the sandwich counter serves up sandwiches that are at least edible, but heavily mayonnaise-reliant. You can get a decent pastry if you’re in the mood, too. The only real standout is the coffee bar, where espressos and a variety of foam –oriented (foamed with a milkshake maker, not steam) coffee drinks are available. But man cannot live on frappés alone, so I usually pick up some pies at a neighborhood bakery on my way to work.

I spend a lot of time at the Main Press Center, a huge building full of offices for reporters and staff from papers around the world. Whoever set up the cafeterias here –one for press and staff, one for staff only -- is clearly unaware of the first rule of getting good press: keep the journos well-fed.

In a city where violent crime is almost unheard of, just walking into these places is an assault on certain key senses. It seems to be the same crew behind these operations as the HQ, which marry bad food to ugly design and fluorescent lighting in ways that seem guaranteed to repel customers, but still people go in. I can only comment on the moussaka and the tortellini with cream sauce: they were vile. I will never go back.
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Happiest meal in the MPC

The place to hang in the MPC is the Heineken Bar on the roof. I think it has another name – the Samos café or the Aphrodite lounge or something from the Holiday Inn Banquet Room Naming Style Guide (Greek edition) – but no one has ever referred to it by that name. It doesn’t serve food, but one can get beer and coffee drinks and even mixed drinks, it’s got a decent views and someone – surely not the people who designed the other facilities – put in a few plants. Evenings, the cream of the Greek sporting press are there, as well as a mélange of other reporters, officials, volunteers and staff.
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Greek reporters trading notes at the Heinekin Bar. "In Greece, we raise two things high: our glasses, and our flag." The guy in the red said that at a press confrerence and I just wanted to pass it along.

All venues have cookie-cutter snack bars specializing in the savory pastries, hot dogs and pizzas mentioned above; some have ice cream in a cup and – in a nod to Greek tastes – yogurt. The unflavored yogurt comes with a smaller cup of honey attached and ready to be emptied into larger cup.

It is almost heartbreaking how wonderful the ranks of café tables lined up in the common domain would be at sunset as the excited, international crowd walks through (yes, they have arrived) and the lighting changes the color of Calatrava’s spectacular architecture every minute. Except the food. A grand opportunity has been missed.

Even away from school, the cafeteria flavor remains. I’ve commented on the press reception I attended elsewhere, but the food at a truly fab Sports Illustrated reception was almost more disappointing for sounding so much better on paper. This was a hot ticket – Ian Thorpe pushed his way past me going one direction, I was elbowed out of the way by what appeared to be the infield of the women’s softball team going the other. Beach Volleyball fans (ie, Al Dente) would have recognized the Fun Girls; HillValley would have recognized the men’s swim team.

SI had clearly dumped a boatload of cash on this reception, at another of the outdoor nightclubs that line the Greek coast. But the oysters, “from Normandie” as French-accented shucker behind the line proudly informed me, seemed to have been transported to Greece by mule rather than air. I’m not going to complain that the (rock? – the warm water type) lobster tail was overcooked – free lobster is free lobster – but there are dozens of delis in the average New York City neighborhood that lay out better sushi than this reception did.
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Not as good as it looks.

I did end up picking bits of flesh, piranha-like, from the carcass of a lamb that had been skewered and grilled, but otherwise it was a good night for drinking, not eating.

A lot of buzz circles around the houses set up by various countries, where they entertain VIPs, schmooze journalists and take care of high-roller Olympic supporters and even the occasional athlete. I had a chance to crash a fashion show at the Italian house -- after seeing all those healthy volleyball players and swimmers, fashion models look particularly wrong -- and eat there. I suspect no one was fooled into thinking they were in Italy, which was a little depressing. If the Italians can't make the taste buds cream, what chance does the Dutch House have? But they did come up with a fine barbera d'Asti for dinner, and having unlimited access an entire wheel of parmesan is not a bad thing.

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Vino, per favore.

The Greek landmass being so intimately wed to the sea, and water being a recurring theme in Greek life, it is no surprise that the swimming venue was the exception to the bad food rule. What is surprising it that this treat was not seafood. Rather, the swimming venue offered what can only be described as prime beefcake – appropriately dressed, and ready to go.

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Choice.

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Prime.

It’s too bad that a country that treasures food the way the Greeks do lost an opportunity to show the world an often-overlooked cuisine. A heartening trend in the U.S. has been the elevation of ballpark food from execrable to at least mediocre (if God-awful expensive) at many venues, I’m sure that Greek sports fans look forward to that trend reaching the Aegean as soon as possible.

Not that one expects brilliant cooking at a footrace, but certainly a little pressure on the caterers to improve performance, a means of working with sponsors to bring a little variety to the menu (I’m beginning to loathe Heineken) while protecting the interests of companies whose support is critical to the Games; and a focus of food that Greeks do well (Lamb, not sushi) would have been well rewarded.

Fortunately, in Greece, there are plenty of places to dine after the Games have closed for the day.
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#37 Busboy

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Posted 27 August 2004 - 10:27 AM

Busboy, what great reports you've been reporting. I've read them with a great deal of nostalgia for Athens and the food there.

Would you do me a favor? Ask around in the Plaka for a taverna called Kouklis. I ate there many times over a three-week period several years ago and still think fondly of the green beans, potato salad with fresh dill and lemon, the favas, the...*sigh*...sit upstairs on one of the tiny balconies and enjoy the afternoon.

See if the food is as good as I remember it, or if my nostalgic mind has upped the ante.

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Look familiar? Details to follow.
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#38 hillvalley

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Posted 28 August 2004 - 10:19 AM

Thank you for the eye candy!!!! Who needs McD's when you have Prime. I can't believe you were in the presence of the Australian And US swimmers. I'm dying here.

Oh, and I expect copies of your pics of the athletes for my, er ummm, classroom :wink:
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#39 Adrian York

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Posted 29 August 2004 - 03:32 AM

Busboy

However bad it was for you let me assure you that for us non-accredited mortals who were officially not allowed to bring in our own supplies the experience was even worse. I don't/can't eat McDs and the other outlet provided food of such awfulness that on one occasion @ OAKA I broke into the volunteers restaurant with one of my daughters and at least got a Greek salad. The games have been fantastic; the weather, venues, renewed infrastructure and level of competition combining to create a fantastic experience, however when I tried to complain, specifically about lack of provision for non-meat eaters, it turned out
that there was no outlet for this. Apperently the games is actually run by a US corporation. The food provided was similar to that one might get at a ball game and not suited to either the local population or the global tourist mix.

#40 Busboy

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Posted 29 August 2004 - 01:23 PM

What - the yougurt, cheese pies and spanokopita weren't enough? :raz: That's the only stuff I would even attempt to force down when I was at a venue. I can't remember the name of the caterer, but you are correct, it is a big multinational. I'm pretty sure the organizers are aware of the complaints, despite your challenge getting through.

Heck -- this whole country is tough for vegetarians. If you're still here, have you tried Eden restaurant in the Plaka? I haven't eaten there but I was planning to include it as an FYI in a wrap-up post, because I've noticed how little vegetarian food is available. If you found any restaurants that worked for you, please post or PM me with whatever info you can remember (check those credit card receipts to jog the memory) and, hopefully, it will be a little easier for the next eGV in Athens.

Edited by Busboy, 29 August 2004 - 01:28 PM.

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#41 Athenaeus

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Posted 13 September 2004 - 03:31 AM

I was too busy with the Olympics so I have just seen that. Yes the food in the venues, especially in OAKA sucked ( the food in the Olympic Village where I was assigned as a volunteer was devine though...).

I am surprized that you consider the Greek Kitchen unfriendly for the vegetarians. I would say exactly the opposite. :-)
"Muabet de Turko,kama de Grego i komer de Djidio", old sefardic proverb ( Three things worth in life: the gossip of the Turk , the bed of the Greek and the food of the Jew)

#42 Busboy

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Posted 29 September 2004 - 01:50 PM

Another long one.

Gah. Went through my wallet for crumbled euro notes, credit card receipts and the other detritus of a long trip and stumbled across a clutch of business card representing establishments ranging from an all-night joint famed for selling tripe soup to drunks, to a refined Michelin 1-star. As many of my notes have turned up missing, I thought I’d get a last post in before my memory deserted me. And, if I don’t have a detailed description of ever dish, well, I’ll be steal a page from the hated Frank Bruni and talk about atmosphere, which is really what the Greeks do best, anyway.

First, a couple of notes and corrections.

In an earlier posting, I wrote that the Monastiraki neighborhood has only recently become hip. Technically speaking, I was not completely wrong – the stretch along the new pedestrian walkway is newish and recently upscaled. But, if you approach the neighborhood from the north – from downtown, rather than the Acropolis -- you will find that the other, larger, section of the hood is old, always fun, often funky and occasionally a bit ratty.

Monastiraki, by the way, is ground zero for souvlaki. To make sure you get the version you're thinking of (the rolled sandwich), ask for a "souvlaki gyro." Don't worry, it doesn't appear to be as redundant or contradictory in Greek as it sounds in English: "gyro" means "wrapped," and keeps you from getting the type where they pile the meat on top of a flat pita. Souvlakis really are better in Greece. Much better.

I went back to Café Avisinia (reviewed above) twice on my most recent trip; the woman with the extraordinary voice was singing again and I was again entranced.

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If I had just one night to spend and wanted to spend it in a traditional Greek Taverna, I think I’d spend it there, eating decent food and clapping along with the locals – even though the service on the last visit was comically inept (the waiter redeemed himself by giving us all the orders he mixed up for free). It’s also a good hit for late lunch after antiquing in the neighborhood. Other places I really want to see again: Aristera-Dexia, Kollias and Gefseis.

OINI-TYRO, in Exarchia, is touted as Athens’ secret source of great wines. Unfortunately, the woman working there the afternoon I dropped in neither spoke English nor seemed particularly interested in the wine. Well, it was August. And somebody with an eye to good Greek and French wine is looming behind the curtain, though, based on the bottles lining the cellar. Most interesting feature, though: a row of barrels set up along one wall; if you’re sick of that overpriced Santorinian Asyrtiko – and who isn’t? – you can buy hearty peasant stuff by the liter (or more).

OINI-TYRO; Xap. Trikoypi 98, Exarchia, 010 3616 274

And finally, just because I got hooked on these things, I wanted to let you know that the national drink of Greece, is not ouzo, it is frappé. If you want to look like a local, or at least and expat, frappé is your beverage of choice. A frothy mixture of Nescafe, sugar and water, whipped up in a milkshake blender and finished with a splash of milk and a couple of ice cubes, it is the overwhelming drink of choice in sidewalk cafés anytime before 8PM, and gives Greeks the energy to dance all night.

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A frappé with a view.

They are an acquired taste. But, if you go, you should have at least one; specify “sweet” or “medium,” and they’ll adjust the sugar accordingly.


********

If you roll out of the Monastiraki subway stop, cut right, towards the Parthenon, veer left past the Roman Agora and continue past the Tower of the Winds, you will pass an almost oppressive quantity of restaurant tables lined up along millennia-old historic sites or arranged artfully under trees and grape arbors. The narrow streets are crowded, loud with energy and laughter, and overhung with strung lights. Here and there live music spills out from a rooftop café or trickles out of an open door, and every corner and niche is filled with tables which waiters struggled to keep filled with food and frappés and wine supplied by kitchens often many doors away from their customers. “Why should our customers eat inside,” the restauranteurs seem to be thinking, “when there’s a view of the ruins just around the corner, and the sidewalk is wide enough for a long string of tables?”

But pass all this by! You want the legend: SHOLARHIO OUZERI, aka KOUKLAS.

An ouzeri is below a taverna or an esteatorio in the food hierarchy, traditionally a place to sip coffee or ouzo that may offer a bite of this or that, as well. Sholario/Kouklas offers a slightly more varied menu and, unlike most Athenian ouzeria, which tend to be places for older men to watch football and play backgammon under fluorescent lights, it is lively place for the whole family.

But it’s still kind of a dive. Though the patio appears to be a little more welcoming, you should think bright lights, cheap flatware and plastic plates on plastic tables shared, when busy, with strangers. But it’s a dive with funk – a patina of cigarette smoke and old pictures on the walls; handwritten notices that no one’s bothered to translate from the Greek, conversation in Greek, English and who-the-hell-knows.

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Deep in the heart of Plaka.

I went upstairs, hoping to score one of the deuces on Kouklas’ tiny balcony, but ended up on one of the communal tables. Every few minutes, a waiter who’d been there 40 years if he’d been there a day would haul a huge tray of food up a tiny spiral staircase, and lay it out before a table. The diners pulled what they wanted from the tray and the waiter would haul it back down again, only to clamber back up a moment later with a carafe of wine or a small battle of ouzo, pausing only to catch their breath and maybe wipe off a little perspiration before heading back down. These men should be permitted to retire.

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At Kouklas, what you see is what you get.

When it was my turn, I had the famous flaming sausages. The first guy to pour cheap fruit brandy on the serving plate and light it up made Kouklas’ fortune, adding the final note to the décor and attitude that has drawn aging locals and young tourists from around the world for many years. The rest of my food – fried eggplant, broad beans and tzaziki -- was fine, though not as compelling as the sausage which, admittedly, was largely compelling for the presentation.

Sholari/Kouklas bills itself as “The most traditional family restaurant in Plaka” which may be true, assuming that traditional Plaka family restaurants are so cosmopolitan that the offer business cards in five languages. I’d bill it as “the perfect place to have an ouzo tasting with five of your closest friends.” Just keep your glass away from the sausages.

SHOLARHIO OUZERI KOUKLAS Tripodin 14, Plaka; 210 32 47 205


After playing the guidebook game, it’s good to get somewhere that people who read Let’s Go don’t go. KOLLIAS FISH TAVERNA in Piraeus isn’t exactly undiscovered; proprietor Tassos Kollias has a U.S.-style wall of fame in the entryway, though his consists of modest snapshots of Greek celebrities – the only one I recognized was former Prime Minister Simites – rather than framed, glossy, 8x10s. And it got a write up in the Financial Times, too, which Tassos likes to show off, though it, too is unframed and getting a little ragged.

Nonetheless, it is undiscovered by the likes of us, by which I mean any Americans and the majority of Brits who don’t read the Financial Times for their restaurant reviews. The competition from the endless stretches of harbor-view fish tavernas (tavernae?) in nearby Microlimano and Piraeus draws tourists and casual visitors away from Kollias’ slightly dingy quarter; the hordes of Greeks who roll off the ferries after a weekend on Chios or Mykanos are looking for one more beautiful view, not a side-street taverna.

All the better for me.

After a particularly interesting cab ride, my partner and I walked the last five blocks to the restaurant. The wild cheering from flatblock balconies on either side signaled Fani Halkia’s gold medal performance in the 400-meter hurdles, not my success in asking directions in Greek. But no matter, we were in a good mood as we met up with a friend, a reporter for the Athens daily, Ta Nea, and were escorted by Tassos to the second-floor rooftop balcony.

And then it began raining fishes.

Let’s see if I can remember them all. There was the little orange fish, hardly larger than a business card, that arrived with a small tin cup of tsipouro as we sat down. It was served fried then chilled with a sweet and tangy – one guesses honey and vinegar – olive oil dressing, from which we each carved a single bite to accompany the dram of tsipouro that arrived, apparently as a matter of custom.

Then, there were the raw clams and scallops – the scallops with their tasty roe intact, a rare find in the US. Then the excellent fried squid – Kalamari in Greek, a good fallback if you get lost on a menu and can’t figure out what to order and the waiter doesn’t speak English. Then smelts, deep-fried as well. Then the parrot fish, sautéed in batter and served hot and crisp, Wish an assertive taste for a delicate fish. There were cold sardines in there somewhere, and a salad, and grilled vegetables. And then another one of those large fish whose name no one knows in English, but was not John Dory or Red Snapper -- though they were available -- a kilo of Mediterranean goodness not, thank goodness, overcooked this time but perhaps overwhelming.

Each dish was simply prepared, more rustic than refined, and served when ready, sometimes stumbling up against the previous plates. There was lemon and olive oil on the table, but the main spice came from Tassos himself, who dropped by several times to chat with Maria and, with her as interpreter, to us. Rumpled and paunchy and sporting the classic Mediterranean 5-o’clock shadow – gone a little snowy – he’d turn a chair around and wrap his arms around the back, raconteur-style, fire up a smoke a smoke, and talk about fish.

Tassos is clearly a man who loves fish. Every plate seemed to knock another nugget of information out of him. “These sardines are from Lesbos” (no comments, Al Dente!). “The parrot fish is hard to catch because it hides in the coral.” “There are better fish in the fall and winter,” when fishing restrictions in the Mediterranean are lifted (God timing, Pastramionrye!). And all the time watching your plate to see if his fish are getting the preparation and the presentation they deserved.

At first, when he led me into the kitchen to choose the evening’s food, I had wondered if he was upselling, hustling the tourist by throwing more fish onto the scale than any threesome could possibly eat, despite my occasional protests of “ohi para poli” -- not too much. But, by the end of the night it seemed clear – and not just because he comped a substantial dessert and the bottle of wine we drank with it -- that the volume and variety of fish was rooted in more innocent motives. First, Greek diners appear to expect that Greek tavernas will put out servings of almost-Cheesecake Factory proportions. Wrote one Brit expat now working for the Athens News: “the only reason Jesus was able to feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes was that there were no Greeks in the crowd.” And, second, Tassos appears to have strong convictions regarding what constitutes a “proper” dinner at his restaurant and, with a regular customer looking to show two Americans what a proper fish taverna dinner was, he was making damn sure we got one.

Now, our fish was not the freshest I have ever seen waiting on ice to become my dinner. Perhaps slow business on August weekdays slows turnover, though not the worst, either. At ant rate, though, any doubts I may have harbored after seeing the fish were resolved after eating them. It was good stuff.

After the Main Fish we asked for a small dessert to split. An ekmek cake or a scoop of ice cream, perhaps. And, of course, dessert came out with as much gusto as the fish had arrived: a platter full of ekmek (a sponge cake with brio) topped with mastic ice cream; an orange peel in which orange sorbet had been cunningly frozen; hanoum’s breasts (another cake, topped with whipped cream), pistachios…. And for all the fish we’d eaten, we ate damn near all the dessert, as well.

Tassos called us a cab and we waddled into the nigh, full, happy, and confident that we had finally eaten a proper Greek fish dinner.

KOLLIAS FISH TAVERNA, Kalokerinou & Dramas, Pireaus; 210 46 29 620; www.kollias.gr (in Greek, but an upgrade promised). Your cabbie will likely not know where this is. Tell him or her to head towards Piraeus Harbor, and then take Agios Dimitriou into the Tampouria section of town. Odos Dramas is about 14 small, dark blocks down Agios Dimitriou from the harbor. Take a left and Odos Kalokerinou is five blocks down. About 225€ for three, with substantial wine.


ALTAMIRA is a truly exquisite room with utterly forgettable cuisine. Laminated menus are always a bad sign. Laminated menus that mix Mexican, Indian, Asian and Arab cuisine are always a really bad sign. Eating here is like joining your friends to sample the “authentic” offerings at the mall food court and trading plates over by the fountain. OK, for all I know, it offers the best Indian, Mexican and Asian cooking in Athens – I know there is better Middle Eastern fare – but this restaurant is to be shunned unless you have a bad, bad jones for mediocre Mexican.

God, it’s a beautiful setting, though.

ALTAMIRA Tsakaloph 36A, Kolonaki 210 36 14 695 210€


All right, I won’t bullshit you on this one. I lost my notes, and the evening was something of a blur, being my last night in Athens and all and my buddies eager to send me off well and, oh yeah, dine on the corporate card one last time. So, no detailed descriptions of this squid dish or that cheese (but don’t get the saganaki tempura, that was something of a low point). Just some advice from an old Athens hand: get yourself over to Gazi and into ARRISTERA-DEXIA.

Gazi gets its name from the gasworks that used to anchor the neighborhood. Now it is hip, artsy and home to many gay clubs. The gasworks have been turned into an art installation and, and one of the many industrial buildings that have been turned into nightclubs or restaurants has become one of Athens best restaurants.

A-D makes industrial chic Greek, with a sound stage-like dining room consisting largely of painted cement, high ceilings and a series of low-hanging rectangular lamps, which divide the room into right and left sections -- “aristera” and “dexia” in Greek. The patio, where you eat on Athens’ many clement summer evenings, is more of the same – a cement slab surrounded by a cement wall with abstract designs painted on it and bare lightbulbs strung above – I was reminded of a Christmas Tree sales lot. Somehow the furnishings make both spaces work, the wooden chairs and tables lending a little organic feel and the tablecloths softening the place up just enough. The bathroom, by the way, is New York-level hip.

The food is chic Greek as well, toothsome twists on traditional cooking that never takes itself or its avant-garde status so seriously that the essential warmth of Greek cuisine is lost. Stuffed, deep-fried eggplants, shrimp and octopus, lamb, all the old standards were there, but dressed up in spiffy new clothes, energized and refreshed. Look for cardamom, allspice, or cinnamon in places you’d never expect; go there, take notes and report back.

I understand that, when the restaurant moves inside in winter, the menu becomes more sophisticated and the prices rise. In summer, however, the kitchen served only mezzedes, tapas-like small dishes, mostly in the €6.99-€9.99 range.

ARISTERA-DEXIA; B. Tzaferi 11 & P. Ralli, Gazi, 210 342 2606 155€


I ended up getting to two of the restaurants John Talbott pointed out upthread out as having been looked over by Le Monde’s critic, (To Ouzadiko was closed for August and 48 The Restaurant was booked the night I tried). Poetically enough, Papandreou and Spondi mark the extreme ends of dining in Athens – refined Michelin-starred dining on a calm, hidden terrace at Spondi, or tripe soup as they unload lamb carcasses around you at Papandreou.

That Spondi has become only the third restaurant in Athens to earn a Michelin star likely says more about it than I can. It is elegant, without being stiff, it is an island of calm in a frenetic city; and it is more French than Greek, though arguably more Mediterranean than either.

I knew I was getting my Athens legs when I came down from my hotel room with my cellphone ready and the restauran’ts number written down. Of course, the cabbie wouldn’t recognize the address. In most cities, other people ask cabbies for directions; in Athens, cabbies ask other people for direction.

Upon belated arrival, we walked through the restaurant’s winter quarters onto a large, multi-tiered terrace that seemed to be lit only by candlelight and stars. Tables were well-spaced and the people at them were well-dressed. As with every nook of Athens, every cranny of space was filled with something green. And both the waiters and the functional areas of the space – bar, prep tables – seemed relics of a more gentil age, Cote d’Azure, 1955, say.

After a brief discussion, our enthusiastic sommeliere recommended an appropriately oaked, if not particularly surprising, (white) Asyrtiko from the Island of Santorini and a slightly over-the-hill but tasty 1990 Xinomavro, produced by Greece’s answer to the Mondavi Tribe, the House of Boutari.

The first taste of the chef’s abilities was an amuse of watermelon (a Greek favorite) and lemon topped with pepper and basil, which I appreciated, more than I enjoyed. I not only appreciated, but truly enjoyed the next course, a millefeuille variation featuring potatoes in the puff-pastry role, squab as the pastry cream and mushrooms as, I don’t know, more pastry cream. The frosting was, of course, a decadent reduction sauce and in its mix of textures and its perfect cooking the whole thing was a delight simply to chew on, much less taste.

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Truly extraordinary squab.

[Any home chef looking for an easy way increase the swank factor of their next soiree, by the way, should note the little “salad in a cucumber canoe” in the back of the picture. Amateurs “borrow”. Professionals steal.]

If the squab was almost too rich for a first course, the rabbit was almost too austere as the main course. One thing I like about these one-stars is that they almost lways get the meat off the bone for you, particularly important if you’re eating small birds or bony mammals. So the braised rabbit arrived looking a bit generic – “the other other white meat,” whatever that is.

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Rabbit: run out and get some.

But, not only did it taste like rabbit, it tasted like rabbit that had been braised by someone who knew their job very, very well: still moist, pleasingly tender and just gamey enough to give it personality. Served with its broth and braising vegetables, spiked up with a little tomato, and accompanied by baked aubergine sprinkled with pistachio, it was a rustic dish prepared by a refined hand.

My friends’ fish and filet were equally well-turned, but, as not everyone is an eGulleter and accepts dinner-time note-taking and spontaneous food photography as normal behavior, I do not have a detailed report beyond my own plate.

With dessert, we split a bottle of vinsanto (sic), again from that Italianized island, Santorini, and then accepted a check, which my friend reported to be well above what had been expected – in the neighborhood of 1000€. With main courses under 30€, first courses under 20€, and the dinner wines well under 100€ we had expected an expensive but not brutally expensive meal. Unfortunately my friend was so taken aback – as well as being one who dreads looking “wrong” in restaurants -- that he did not go through the check in detail and, to this day, we do not know if there was an error made or if things just somehow got out of hand. The vinsanto is the prime suspect. It’s a wonderful restaurant, but proceed with caution.

SPONDI 5 Pyronos, off Varnava Sq; GR - 116 36 Athína(210) 7564 021; (210) 7564 021


One good place to end up when you haven’t been proceeding with caution, and you feel as though maybe something in your stomach would give you the fortitude to face down the smirking front desk clerk (so, the sun is up. what about it?) is Papandreou.

If Edward Hopper were Greek, he would have painted Papandreou, but the nighthawks gathered there would have looked less existentially numb. If Tom Waits lived in Athens he would go there after shows and chain smoke amongst the truck drivers and the club kids. World traveler Anthony Bourdaine has probably already scratched his name into the bathroom wall after a long conversation in broken English about butchering lamb. (There’s Parthenon view from the ladies room, but you have to stand up. Of course, there’s no place to sit.) (There was a line for the gents, that’s what I was doing there.)

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Nighthawks at the taverna.

Essentially a very Greek take on an all-night diner, Papandreou is located on the edge Athens meat market, a reasonably quick stagger from the late-night neighborhoods of Monastiraki, Psyrri and Plaka. The clientele is diverse, but reaches its most surreal mix in the pre-dawn hours when the late night crowd overlaps with butchers preparing to clock in.

The food? Big bowls of boiled stuff: soups and stews and spaghetti ladled out of big pots set behind Plexiglas screens. It’s see-food. Since the menu is only available in Greek, your affable waiter will walk you down the line, so you can see what looks good. The first time I went there, on my way to meet friends at some despicable dance club called BEE (bee-ware!), a stew consisting of lamb chops and a chard-like green, flavored with lemon and egg-white looked good. I’d never seen a triple cut lamb chop just thrown into a stew pot, whole, but it seemed to work. The bitter greens and lemon balanced the rich broth and tender meat – one of those happy peasant pairings – the egg white added a novel texture, and the serving was, as they say, substantial.

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The blue plate special, 14€ with wine, tax and tip. You will not leave hungry

Now, make no mistake, this was truck stop eating. There is no subtlety to this food, no unexpected spice or grace note you might find in, say, Provence. The wine was fairly uncommon shade of red, and not a little sour. But I was hungry and the place hit the spot.

The second time I want to Papandreou, six hours later on the same night, I was determined to try the patsas, tripe soup. Papandreou’s patsas is widely reputed to have curative powers, particularly if one is experiencing or anticipating a hangover; it is a popular dish at 5AM.

WARNING: PAPANDREOU’S PATSAS DOES NOT IN FACT PREVENT HANGOVERS.

In retrospect, finding an establishment that served bracing cups of black coffee, rather than one offering cheap carafes of white wine -- noticably more appealing than the red, would have been more appropriate. And the distraction of a market preparing for business – the low rumble of delivery trucks, the chatter and yells of workers as they off-load whole pigs and lambs, and the visual delight of the old market renewing itself in the pre-dawn gray – were compelling. Thus, my notes on the patsas are incomplete. Tart, meaty, chewy: like the early stew, it felt like it should have curative powers. Sadly, it has to succeed on its taste alone.

Fortunately, it does.

PAPANDREOU, Kendriki Agora, 010-32-19-47

Edited by Busboy, 13 June 2005 - 08:03 PM.

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#43 Busboy

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Posted 01 October 2004 - 08:28 AM

PS: Crete


I wish I had more to write about Crete; I have never been so viscerally seized by any place I have ever been. I went there because every Greek I asked, when they heard that I had just three days to travel and could only see one islands, said "go to Crete." And having taken there advice, I wanted to pass it along to you, with whatever value I could add. Crete is magical, you should go.[some non-food shots here]

For excellent advice from a respected professional food journalist who speaks Greek and knows the island well, start with this New York Time piece. (For something completely different, read on.)

****

After catching an early flight out, renting a car and screwing around Chania (aka Hania, aka Xania) for a few hours I decided to drive out to backcountry for dinner. Once I finally put the over-developed seacoast behind me, I was simply overwhelmed by the peace and beauty of the countryside. There’s something about the light and the villages and the millions of olive trees and occasional vineyard that produces an almost trance-like state.
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The gift of Athena.

According to one guidebook I read, there are 25 million olive trees in Crete – 50 for every Cretan (stop snickering at the word “Cretan”!). I don’t know why they strike me so powerfully – as opposed to apple trees or oaks – but staring across the valley at the groves felt like watching history unfold or seeing into the lives of the people who grew them.

Unfortunately, I was hurrying to get to the restored village of Milia before sunset, and had to end my roadside reverie and hurry on.

The drive up the mountainside to Milia was one marked by extraordinary views, terrifying switchbacks, ethereal light and random stops to give the jaw time to undrop before maneuvering the next curve.

Between the gawking and the many wrong turns I’d made earlier in the trip, however, I arrived just after sunset; too late, really, to tour the village. The dinner was a bit of a disappointment, too, though that may be my fault.

Friends whom I trust and who recommended the place very highly tell me that Milia is a daylight trip, so you can sit on the balcony and see the chestnut trees whose nuts contribute to your dessert and the olive groves from which your oil was pressed. But, as the village has limited electricity, I found myself dining alone, by candlelight, in a room with no music, facing a trip back whose length and difficulty precluded any serious drinking.

Nonetheless, I’d give it another shot. I’d make a day of hiking the spectacular Topolia Gorge and exploring the Agia Sofia Cave, both beside the road to Milia, and get there early with a few friends. The food is organic and traditional, a little austere but very good.

I had the dakos and roast lamb from the limited menu. The dakos was perfect, stale bread topped with chopped local tomatoes and artisanal cheese, garnished with olives at hot peppers; the lamb was a mix of cuts – I recognized chops, shank and blade on my plate – perfectly roasted and served virtually unadorned. The wine was strong and rustic, dessert was a pear. It was a meal that Kazantsakis’ Captain Michalis might have eaten the night before he led his rebels into battle against the Turks, in a town where he might have laid up (as Greek partisans did in World War II) while planning the attack. All we lacked was raki and the loyal Veduso to pluck out a patriotic tune on his lyre.

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Eating simply and traditionally Milia.

On the way out, I picked up an 8.50€ bottle of excellent organic olive oil, produce in the village. It’s almost worth the trip just for the dense, spicy oil.

The next morning, I blew off breakfast at the hotel to head over to the food market and to begin my quest for sweet -- as opposed to the more common savory -- kalitsounia, inspired by a conversation with DC’s best boulangière, eG’s own mkyte. Sadly, in my brief time in Crete, I did not discover any sweet kalitsounia. But did develop a taste for this Cretan variation on a cheese pie – a turnover topped with sesame seeds and stuffed with a tangy soft cheese.
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Tasty savouries.

The market, despite the fact that its pastries are probably not as good as mkyte’s, was a pretty swell spot. About half serious market and half tourist trap, it’s a nice place to have a traditional Greek breakfast, get your souvenir shopping done, and check out the local produce.
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Artisanal cheese, tacky t-shirts; haggling housewives, and hungry tourists: it's all at the market.

Breakfast, of course, should be either Greek coffee and a pastry, or raki and a snack. “Greek coffee” used to be “Turkish coffee” until, during World War I (I seem to recall), the name was changed, à la “victory cabbage” or “freedom fries.” If you forget this, you will remember the instant you turn the cup back for that last strong, sweet, bitter drop, and a quantity of finely-ground coffee sludge begins oozing into your mouth.

You’ll see more than the occasional old-timer knocking back a thimbleful of raki for breakfast.
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It's all part of a balanced breakfast. The raki is the small glass. :wink:

The waiter seemed pleased when I ordered mine (after dispatching the coffee and the kalitsounia; we Americans need our big breakfasts), his smile was almost as big as the one I got when the raki and the caffeine began working their magic together. What was it Jack Nicholson said in Easy Rider? “It gives you a whole new way of looking at the day.”

As much fun as breakfast in Chania Market can be, the stroll by the fishmonger is the morning's highlight. Anyone visiting Chania should consider abandoning the charms of old-city hotels for what the Brits call a “self-catering flat," just so they can cook these fish. Never have I seen eyes so clear or scales so radiant. And, of course, varieties I’ve never seen laid out on ice before.

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Photgenic fish (though this photo does not do them justice).

I gave a moment’s thought to buying one and asking one of the nearby restaurants to cook it up but – even happily buzzed on raki and coffee -- I knew that my Greek was not up to the task.

After touring the rest of the market I wandered into AMALIA MAVROGENNI, a shop specializing in tourist-friendly Cretan foods. There are a couple places like this in the Hall, but Amalia was the only person actually offering samples of the olive oils and the rakis, so I ducked in. I found an “every day” oil for 6€ a liter can (better to fly with) that tastes – I wish I could describe it better – exactly like being in Greece. I will horde the last drops for stewed eggplant with lemon, tomato and feta and maybe a grilled fish one cold winter night.

Drinking her raki after dinner now, and marveling at its brutish taste and strange appeal, I am surprised how smooth Amelia’s brew seemed that morning, almost liqueur-like. This gives you some idea of the stuff they serve a low-rent bars in Greece. I didn’t really want to try it – well, just the herbed raki, to see if it was the same as the stuff they serve at Jimmy and the Fish in Athens -- but Amalia is a very persuasive woman in Greek, English and German. Anyway, I picked up two bottles at 4.50€ each and, if I had any sense, that would be a lifetime supply.

AMALIA MAVROGENNI Agora Market Hall, Chania, 28210.52209

After briefly considering hunting up a beach frequented by beautiful people, naked tourist chicks and international high-rollers, I decided instead to head up the Akrotiri peninsula to Stavros and enjoy a little peace and quite. After a month in Athens, one needs calm. Sunset beach is about 20 minutes away from the Old City or, if you drive like me, 45 minutes away. (Cretan roadways make French roadways look well-marked – except for the National Highway, they don’t even pretend to give the roads names you call follow or assign them route numbers you can reference on a map. Plan extra time.)

As you get within range of Stavros – I never spotted an actual village, but there were signs – you will see hand-lettered signs directing you to Sunset Beach, where you will find lounges and umbrellas set out at 2€/per, and the Sunset Beach Bar.

The beach is calm and pretty, the water is warm and clear, and the bar is a delight. Set up on a low deck, topped with palm fronds and seemingly operated on electricity bootlegged from a nearby power line, I could have spent a week there. The music ranged from new age to Tracy Chapman; the woman who runs it seems to be some kind of ex-hippie who went to ground in Crete and started up a joint.
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You could spend a week within sight of this place, and have a very fine vacation.

If the accent hadn’t tipped me off that she was French, the shallots (first I'd seen in a long time) mixed into the excellent octopus salad and the fleur du sel sprinkled atop might done the trick. She also managed to cook up a tasty plate of baked aubergine with tomato sauce in what looked like a kitchen salvaged from a mid-60’s flat-block kitchen and installed behind the bar. Don’t look at the menu, just ask her what she’s got today.

By the way, if you're every considering taking the kids to Crete, take 'em here. Toys, games, complete tolerance, shallow water and easy waves.

SUNSET BEACH BAR; Stavros, Akitori, Crete.

That evening I had a wonderful time watching the city and the cliffs transformed by the sunset into an almost inexplicable beautiful tableau and then the moon rise over the harbor from the otherwise deserted balcony of the Amphora Hotel.

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That's what you call "good light." Eat your heart out, Provence.

The Amphora is a beautiful restored house built in the 13th century by, one assumes, one of the Venetian merchants then currently running Crete. The rooms are Euro – small but charming – and mine had a great view of the lighthouse. The speed with which they offered a rate substantially below that quoted on the website (from 105€ -- as I recall -- to 65€, for a double room) makes me think that, if you’re not traveling in high season, a little negotiating might save you substantial pocket change here or anywhere in the somewhat glutted Chania hotel market.

There is an argument to be made that the best place to see Chania is from a hotel balcony. The beautiful harbor and twisting pedestrian backstreets are pretty much overrun with tourists, largely British and German, and both the souvenir shops and restaurants seem to cater to a least-common-denominator taste. Late at night, the club scene seems to thrive on the kind of eurotechodisco that just sends me around the bend. Posted Image
Each light is another restaurant with a barker out front and a fish and two veg special inside.

I wandered around looking for dinner and, for the first time in ages, my radar completely deserted me. One restaurant I tried had no free space, and some promising other spots seemed to be closing up very early. I walked out of two places without ordering because, once I was hustled in, the food those around me were eating just didn’t look appealing. There's a strong argument to be made that in a city catering to tourists -- German and British tourists, at that -- with a spectacular surplus of charm and history, the bar is set pretty low when it comes to actually putting food on the table.

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More light than (culinary) magic.

I ended up in an awful, but not unfriendly, taverna on a tiny pedestrian street near the hotel talking to an older couple from Michigan who had just finished attending their fourth Olympic Games, and eating very bad steak. Oh, well. The guidebooks have some recommendations, Chania seems to be a good city in which to follow them.

The next morning I decided to point the car south and just drive until I ran out of road, somewhere about half-way up the White Mountains. I guess there were more productive or educational things to do than to zoom around Crete playing the Grateful Dead and the North Mississippi All-Stars loud, but I still can’t think of them. The back-country was once again spectacular and, at a small taverna in Zourba (how perfect, eh?) I found the perfect Greek Salad. It wasn’t much, just fresh tomatoes, a soft cheese that probably came from a neighbor’s goat, and brilliant olive oil.
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The one.

I had some lamb sausages, too, with fried potatoes, and that sour local wine and sweet Greek coffee and I walked around the village looking at olive groves and beehives – there seems to be a handwritten sign offering “meli” – honey – every couple of kilometers in Crete – and was about as happy as I could have been.

I rolled down the mountains and headed back to the airport, via Sunset Beach, where I has a last swim and a Mythos beer and put my sandy ass on the place to Athens. The next night we had an excellent meal at Arrestria-Dexia, and the next day I flew home, but that was epilogue. The perfect end to my Greek adventure came on that hillside in Crete, eating sausage and salad with the old guys from the village, being served by an old lady in black.

TAVERNA AIMILIA; Zourba, Kydonias (28210) 67470, 67060

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Thanks to all who read these rambling and indulgent notes, I hope they were useful and amusing, and that other eGulleters will have the opportunity to correct, expand and update them on their own trips to Greece -- and that I'll get back some day.

Edited by Busboy, 02 October 2004 - 07:16 AM.

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#44 mktye

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Posted 02 October 2004 - 06:59 AM

Thanks Busboy for searching for the elusive sweet kalitsounia. They savory ones you found also look delicous. A few questions about them -- from what you recall, was the crust simple water & flour, or did it contain any fat (most likely olive oil)? Crisp or soft? Tender or chewy? Thick or thin? Leavened? Baked or fried? (Yes, that was more than a "few" questions!)

I'll make some sweet kalitsounia for you and bring them to the next eG event we both attend. :smile:

#45 Busboy

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Posted 04 October 2004 - 09:12 AM

It felt as though the crust had some type of oil in it -- it had that same kind of texture that you get woth "Italian" bread that's had olive oil added. It was chewy, in a good sense, with a little density and heft to it even though it had bee rolled out very thin. Hard to tell if it was leavened, but I'd guess no. And it was definitley baked.

Looking forward to trying the sweet ones!
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#46 Freckles

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Posted 16 February 2005 - 05:37 AM

Hey, this is a terrific thread but I see the last post was 4 and a half months ago. I leave tomorrow for a week in Athens and surrounding areas. Any additional comments you want to mention? THANKS.

#47 Busboy

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Posted 16 February 2005 - 08:28 AM

Not much to add. I wonder if the fresh favas are in from Santorini yet -- they're a personal obsession and will probably be served fresh and mashed (as opposed to dried and mashed) at the better sort of restaurant this time of year. I hear that the fish selection is better in the winter, as well, because EU regs limit harvesting of certain kinds in the summer (spawning) season. Might be a good time to hunt down a proper fish taverna. Check the links at the top of the thread, they may have updated since last fall.

Have fun and I hope you'll report back.
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#48 tony h

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Posted 25 April 2005 - 08:43 AM

Spondi – April 2005

Located near the location of the first modern Olympic games – well worth seeking out before an evening meal to watch the vibrant multicoloured sunset over the acropolis.

Pre-starters – semi-warm potato soup with quenelle of sour cream & traces of truffle. Lovely silky texture but a little lacking in depth (and heat).

Tasting menu – course 1
Foie gras poached in cognac & server on a bed on green beans with cream dressing. I thought this was going to be hot – but no. Just a reasonable terrine let down by not being pure foie gras – had a few gristly bits in it. Tasted fine – but portion very small.

Course 2 – this was a carbonara of squid. Astonishingly good. At first I thought it was risotto – but the pasta was simply small (I don’t know the type) with a superb carbonara sauce. This came with a vibrant but light tomato sauce with beautifully cooked squid.

Course 3 – john dory with an array of lovely local vegetables including samphire & salsify. Topped with red rose petal. Just great

Course 4 – pork loin roasted and accompanied with potato cooked in straw. Everything laced with truffle – including the reduction. Really, really good.

Course 5 – strawberries & olives poached in red wine with olive oil ice cream. The olives had been candied & tasted much betted than they sound. Very good ice cream – the often mustiness of the oil kept well at bay.

Course 6 – chocolate fondant. Old faithful, I suppose. Written about so many times – nothing new to add to it here. It was very good – but a poor cousin to the recent fondant at Michel Bras I had recently.

Great little restaurant with its sights on two stars. Its nowhere near that good yet – but certainly ambitious & inventive enough. One to watch.

#49 Della

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Posted 30 June 2007 - 11:49 AM

I thought I'd bump this thread up. Adiabatic and I are heading to Greece in late August and will be spending several days in Athens, hitting Sifnos, Santorini, Mykonos as well as taking a couple days to drive around central Greece. Thought I'd ask if anyone has any new tips on great must try restaurants, taverna or bars ~ or wanted to reconfirm their love of old, tried and true places.
We haven't planned out our driving around Central Greece quite yet but will in the next few weeks. But, if anyone has any thoughts or suggestions off the top of their head for Athens or the islands I mentioned - we'd be appreciative. More specific questions to come.
Thanks!!!!
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#50 John Talbott

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Posted 04 May 2008 - 12:39 PM

Joanna Kakissis in Sunday's NYT has an article on 36 Hours Athens mentioning the craze for Cretian food at Alatsi, plus the bars Galaxy, Nixon, Bios, Soul + Bo and restos: Sofia's Valaoritou, Varoulko, Sardelles, Plous Podila + Ammos.
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#51 Forest

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Posted 11 November 2008 - 02:43 PM

Joanna Kakissis in Sunday's NYT has an article on 36 Hours Athens mentioning the craze for Cretian food at Alatsi, plus the bars Galaxy, Nixon, Bios, Soul + Bo and restos: Sofia's Valaoritou, Varoulko, Sardelles, Plous Podila + Ammos.

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I just got back from Athens and gave Alatsi a try. When I arrived at 9:15 the place was empty. It's large and seems sort of modern/trendy. When I told them I didn't have reservations, I thought they were just shoving me off to eat in the bar because i was a single diner. But sure enough by 9:45 the place was packed. And, incidentally, the bar was a fine place to eat - the counter was large enough, there are a couple of extra large chairs with backs at one end and the waitstaff were still attentive.

I'm not sure of the actual greek names of my orders because they only had one menu and it was all in Greek so the waiter had to run from table to table with it. However, don't take this as an indication that it's a quaint and tiny little restaurant - they were just in the process of reprinting the menus. I started with stuffed grape leaves that were excellent. Followed by a potato and pork dish that was amazingly tender. Both were very good. The bill - with two courses and two drinks for one person came to 40 Euros exactly. The bartender offered me a digestif on the house following the meal. I was happy with the meal and thought it worth the price.

I also checked out the Galaxy Bar at the Hilton mentioned in the article (which is across the street from this restaurant) on another night. The article mentions the great view and expensive drinks. Maybe I'm jaded - I thought the view was fine, but I wasn't blown away. The drinks were very nice, but I'm not sure how expensive as someone bought mine for me and I figured it would be rude to pick up the bill at look at te price after that. I'd say, it's an okay stop - but not a MUST for a drink if the prices are really that high.

Edited by Forest, 11 November 2008 - 02:44 PM.

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#52 annadev

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Posted 24 May 2010 - 07:45 AM

We are going to be in Athens for two nights in June, staying on the edge of Plaka. Haven't been there in thirty years. We'd like to try some "new" Greek food. We are happy to go to other districts - Kolonaki, etc. - to do so, not as far as Kifissia, though. Ideas?

#53 nikkib

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Posted 17 February 2011 - 01:24 PM

Heading to athens for 4 nights in a couple of weeks - any recent recommendations would be great - specifically midrange would be great - also bars etc would be helpful too and food markets..... ooh so many questions, egulleters help me out PLEASE!!!!
"Experience is something you gain just after you needed it" ....A Wise man

#54 nikkib

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Posted 07 March 2011 - 12:44 PM

no updates? Eek might have to chance it... oh well will post on my findings when im back the week after next...
"Experience is something you gain just after you needed it" ....A Wise man

#55 kerriar

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Posted 03 October 2013 - 12:38 AM

Not much recent activity on Athens it seems - but if anybody reading this has been to Kollias Seafood Tavern at its new location, some feedback would be appreciated.

 

For many years some of the best fish in Athens (or anywhere else for that matter) was assured at the old Piraeus premises - it's now at Leoforos Singrou and I'm wondering if everything is still the same before I bring a group of professional friends there.

 

I don't get to Athens that often and re-visiting somewhere on the basis of good memories carries some risk - especially if time and a change of premises have had their impact. The old website, which was quirky, artistic and creative (and all unremittingly in Greek) now looks a bit like any well designed restaurant website with fairly standard bilingual explanations and the poetry seems to have gone.