Wednesday, 2 October 2013

edible athens

yoghurt with honey and walnuts at stani
london has its public houses, italy its trattorias, paris its bistrots and greece its tavernas. the tavernas are where you should go for mezedes (small plates), grilled meats, seafood and ouzo. whatever you do, never forgo the greek salad. you should ask for it for the tomatoes alone. they are intensely sweet and juicy, tasting of sunshine and freshness. 

our first meal in athens was rather mediocre given o’s insistence on eating a gyro in the heart of the plaka. i used it strategically to allow me to take charge of choosing where to eat, leaving him to navigate for the rest of the trip. that division of labour (along with some excellent recommendations from m and culinary backstreets) meant that we ate very well. in fact, it allowed athens to join the league of paris and turin, the two other cities where we had outstanding food.

watermelon and saganaki feta and two rice with trout salad
the food in athens is not glamorous. it is simple in both elements and construction and yet packed with flavour. most of it was traditional except for at melilotis where we ate the night before our departure. although even here the creativity was firmly grounded in the familiar. take for instance its signature entrée of baked salmon with a soft crust of leeks, fennel and celery finished with a reduction made with mastika (a regional liquor from chios). it is merely baked salmon with wilted spinach and rice. what makes it special is the flavour from the crust of sauteed vegetables and the mastika reduction. likewise an outstanding salad of watermelon and saganaki feta battered with ouzo and sunflower seeds reflects the classic pairing of sweet and salty, cool and warm and crunch and softness. the same can be said of the two rice salad composed of yellow and white basmati. the rice had plenty of bite and was heavily flecked with herbs and pistachio, large flakes of smoked trout and beluga lentils. what elevated it was an exceptional rosemary infused olive oil that was assertive and grassy along with valerian, a herb better known for its relaxing properties. it is not difficult to understand the appeal of this unassuming restaurant tucked into a backstreet of a shopping district. its emphasis on flavour and quality ingredients are what earned it a mention in the nytimes and makes it a steadfast favourite with the locals. 

fava at paradosiako
paradosiako (literally traditional) is the essence of traditional home-cooking. it is family run and is oddly placed at the quiet end of a commercial street. the portions were so large that we had to cancel the fried anchovies. o was delighted by a very simple mezedes of fava made with mashed yellow split peas and finished with olive oil, parsley and red onions. we had baked feta crowned with tomato, parsley and olive oil which was equally charming. the moussaka was a rustic construction of layers of aubergine, mincemeat and potato better suited to cooler weather when one needs the comfort and warmth of carbohydrates. my favourite was the grilled squid whose well charred tentacles were a treat with plenty of lime and olive oil.

yoghurt with walnuts and honey at stani
one morning we breakfasted at an old fashioned dairy bar called stani that specialises in greek yoghurt, top cream, rice pudding and loukamades. women shop here yet scarcely pause to eat a plate of rice pudding or some mille-feuille, for stani really is a place for men, mostly pensioners who linger over frappe and conversation. most of them are old with frail, deliberate movements and those on their own work their kombolói absentmindedly, producing a rhythmic clicking. i had the yoghurt. it is disc shaped, has a thick skin and comes with honey and walnuts. it is slightly tart and quite dense. o has fried eggs and bread to soak the excess ouzo and grappa in his bloodstream from the night before. for good measure we spilt a rice pudding that comes on a shallow plate dusted with cinnamon. i must tell you that the neighbourhood that stani is in is very rough around the edges and our rather garrulous taxi driver drove that point home in a pronounced manner. but do not let that prevent you from going along for this may be one of the few remaining glimpses into athens urban culture. it certainly feels circa 1930s for that is when it was established. 

monday evening finds o and i weaving through the plaka and monastiraki to avissinia café (recommended by my friend m) only to find that it like many other places was closed. in athens the opening times of cafés and even museums are idiosyncratic so i would really recommend doing your homework. rather disappointed we decided to head to gazi where we found the butcher shop and sardeles (also recommended by m). a traditional psistaria, the butcher shop and sardeles specialise in grilled meat and seafood. o had a delicately spiced kebab made with a mix of veal and ewe and i an assortment of seafood – tiny anchovies baked in a bath of olive oil and herbs, fillets of smoked trout and smoked cod. it was the perfect place for sampling as one can order half or quarter portions. our waiter recommended a refreshing salsa like politiki salad as a side.

anchovies baked in olive oil
salt cod, smoked trout and potiliki at sardeles
on tuesday we returned to café avissinia for a leisurely dinner on the roof terrace with an arresting view of the acropolis and the temple of hephaestus. we started with a carafe of wine and some mezedes. o picked the fava which had a hummus like consistency and was framed with olive oil, a scattering of capers and some red onion. i picked the white bait cured in olive oil with an assertive local herb and plenty of garlic, along with an eggplant salad with the soft crunch of walnuts. i also had long peppers with a rather fiery temperament, charred on a hot grill. out of the entrees it was the sardines baked with tomatoes and onions that was a real treat. my only gripe with the mussel pilaf was the scantiness of the mussels themselves. we closed on a large triangle of baklava with a pronounced clove and cinnamon note.

miran, an emporium of cured meats and cheese
meat and cheese platter at miran
on our last morning in athens o took me to the agora (athens' central market) a cornucopia of shops that sell everything from bric-a-brac, home-wares, cheap clothes and fresh produce. i was impressed by the cleanliness of the meat-market where carcasses of meat were suspended neatly in glass boxes. there were few flies and virtually no odour. this was in marked contrast to the large wet markets in singapore. there was an old rembetiko café in the meat market but sadly we are unable to eat there having had our fill of cured meats and cheese at miran. in the fruit and vegetable market, we found an abundance of olive shops. there were pyramids of them in gradations of green, black and black purple – shiny, wrinkly, brined and marinated. they are astonishingly cheap and travelled back to london with me. my clothes reeked of their brineness despite three layers of plastic wrapping. it was a small price to pay for such intense flavour.

olives and pickles
a supermaret trolley serves as a garlic shop
herbs and vegetables
there was so much i wanted to buy like those spoon sweet olives whose saltiness was smoothed by sugar and a honey infused vinegar that was as good with bread as it would be drizzled over vanilla ice-cream. consider also those large squares of feta in varieties that were rich and creamy, salty, mild or firm and crumbly or bottles of rakomelo and fruity liqueurs from brettos. it is true that athens is not the prettiest of european cities. i know that o did not take to it the way i did. but i cannot help but be charmed by its quaint little bars, the tomatoes that bled sunshine and those old men that click through their kombolói.

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