Andy Har­ris un­cov­ers a wide range of food lovers’ se­crets in the back­streets and bays of Athens

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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

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