Andy Harris uncovers a wide range of food lovers’ secrets in the backstreets and bays of Athens
IT is easy to romanticise the Mediterranean way of life and the simplicity of its peasant cuisine. Consider celebrity chef Rick Stein’s latest television series, Mediterranean Escapes, in which the best food seems to be found in small trattoria and tavernas that specialise in dishes using local ingredients, such as blanco — a heady fish stew of rophos (or grouper) steaks with potatoes, garlic and olive oil — or kouneli stifado (rabbit and onion stew) from Corfu.
Nowhere is this impulse more apparent than in Greece. In the hot summer, the Greek islands endure an influx of sunseekers, lured by the promise of idyllic beach tavernas where they can eat charcoal-grilled fish while dipping their feet in the warm waters of the Aegean. Most arrive at Athens airport and head directly for buses, trains and taxis bound for the port of Piraeus and the earlymorning ferries to the islands, without venturing into the chaos of central Athens.
Athens can be unbearably hot. But its inhabitants survive the ravages of innercity life (the cloud of pollution, the traffic and general lethargy) by demanding a higher standard of cooking than is often found on the overcrowded islands. One of the surprises of the city is the sheer variety of good places to eat.
There are ouzerie for inventive mezedes (small dishes similar to Spanish tapas), psistaria (grill restaurants) for delicious meat dishes, neighbourhood tavernas serving huge portions of baked butter beans and vegetables, and old-fashioned estiatoria, restaurants such as Ideal (46 Panepistimiou St) or Kentrikon (3 Kolokotroni St), which serve the seasonal specialities of the Greek kitchen such as arni fricassee, a lamb and lettuce stew with avgolemono (egg and lemon) sauce, or yiourvalakia, rice and meatballs in an aromatic broth.
Mikrolimano is one of the small harbours of the port of Piraeus. Here popular fish restaurants, psarotavernes, offer prawn and tomato soup and freshly caught dentex ( synagrida ) or sea bass ( lavraki ), two of the Aegean’s most expensive fish, simply barbecued and served with boiled vegetables and an oil and lemon sauce.
Athenians have a special relationship with this quaint harbour of caiques and luxury yachts, indeed with all the small harbours clustered around Piraeus port. It is notorious as a backdrop to countless comic films of the 1960s, with stock characters such as the hapless American tourist and the poor fisherman in love with the prostitute with a heart of gold (think Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday ).
Two other fish tavernas in the slightly shabbier working-class neighbourhood of Keratsini are also worth a visit. On a jasmine-scented rooftop with rasping Greek music playing, Kollias (3 Plastira St) serves some of the finest Aegean fish: sea bream, red mullet, sea urchins, tiny deepwater oysters and communal salads piled high with vegetables, rocket and purslane.
Beneath the imposing tower of the power station here at Keratsini is another tiny harbour of colourful fishing boats, a whitewashed chapel and the ouzerie To Limanaki (Propondidos and Talandou streets), serving prawns or mussels baked with tomatoes, feta and herbs, grilled cuttlefish and sole, pungent kopanisti cheese and platters of raw clams and other juicy molluscs.
Even more popular are the grill restaurants of Vari, along the coast on the road to Cape Sounion, which specialise in the food of Epirus in northern Greece. The Lebanese immigrants (who fled Beirut) love these restaurants because of specialities such as spit-roasted suckling pig and kid sold by the kilo, sheep’s heads and lamb dishes in which the meat is slowcooked under huge metal domes filled with charcoal.
Outside these restaurants, men nicknamed kraktes (crows), dressed in the traditional shepherd’s costume of kilt-like fustinellas and pom-pom clogs or long white butcher’s aprons, force cars to stop in their push for custom.
In the summer, Athenians head for the cooler inland suburbs. In Ekali, about 20km north of the city, restaurants serve oval-shaped oven-baked pinerli, similar to Turkish pide, with fillings of minced meat, cheese or eggs; it’s a dish brought here by refugees from Asia Minor in 1922.
At Kifissia’s garden tavernas, such as Gefseis me Onamasia Proelefseis, which translates as Flavours of Designated Origin (317 Kifissias Ave), Nena Ismirnoglou, one of Greece’s few female chefs, cooks simple and assured regional dishes, such as baked kid with a yoghurt crust and traditional vegetable pies.
But my favourite area is still around the Plaka in Athens, the old quarter beneath the scorched marble of the Acropolis. Around its main square, Byzantino (18 Kidathineon St) and Psaras (at No 16) are legendary tavernas where the local artists, intellectuals and rich Greeks who have restored neo-classical houses in the area slum it with the tourists. Psaras squabbles with another taverna for its share of a small tree-lined square. It never changes, although it closes every year for a coat of paint that never appears. The place is renowned for its lackadaisical service, but isn’t all of Greece? With its sloping tables, pot-roasted beef and orzo, boiled zucchini and barrel retsina, it is a good diversion from the nearby camera-clicking hordes and tourist trinket stores. The Central Athinas Market nearby remains the quintessential 24-hour eating experience. Apart from the diversions of this vibrant enclosed fish and meat market, there are three tavernas open daily, except on Sunday nights.
At the best of these, Papandreou, chefs stir huge aluminium pots containing every classic dish: bean soup, stuffed cabbage leaves, meat and pasta pie and spinach rice. By day the taverna is hidden behind butcher’s blocks and hanging carcasses of meat. At night, when the market is closed, queues of late-night revellers, who come when the rembetika music clubs close, wait for a favourite hangover cure: steaming bowls of patsas, or tripe soup, enriched with garlic and red wine vinegar.
I also like to make a detour to Thanassis (69 Mitropoleos St), which serves the best souvlaki in the city, eaten on the footpath with the jostling gypsies and office workers. And nearby, among the specialist food stores, are two hard-to-find classics. The basement Diporto (9 Sokratous St), hidden beneath an olive shop, has a Jaques Tatiesque view of cars and feet scurrying past in the street above. The often-grumpy owner and chef Barba Mitsos (Old Man) cooks salted sardines on a tiny grill, ladles thick chickpea soup and stewed potatoes with chilli into bowls, fills 1 kg aluminium wine jugs with retsina, scribbles bills on the paper tablecloths and shouts at the lotteryticket sellers and buskers who descend his well-worn marble steps.
Stoa Tou Vangeli, in a narrow arcade at 63 Evripidou St, is Diporto’s spiritual counterpart, filled with whitewashed wine barrels, faded posters, a large cage of bickering birds and market traders who come for aromatic artichokes and peas, baked anchovies and perfectly braised veal stews.
And if I ever tire of these timeless places, there is always the cutting-edge cuisine of Cypriot-born Christoforos Peskias at 48 The Restaurant (48 Armatolon St). Note: Peskias, Greece’s molecular chef, will give a masterclass at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival on March 1 and 2.
Or there is Costas Spiliadis’s Estiatorio Milos (www.milos.ca) in the luxurious basement and garden setting of the Hilton Hotel, which treats contemporary Greek cuisine with due respect, elevating to exhilarating culinary heights traditional ingredients such as Naxos rooster, Cretan wild horta and vegetables, and Greece’s outstanding artisan cheeses and wines. Andy Harris is editor-at-large of AustralianGourmetTraveller and GourmetTravellerWine.
Timeless tastes: Tavernas in the old quarter of the Plaka, below the Acropolis