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Eat: Athens

Tradition and modernity are never far apart in the Greek capital, and it’s no different with its cuisine — from skewered meat to experimental cocktail kitchens and foodie trends bucking the debt crisis

Eat: Athens
Dining alfresco in Pláka. Image: Getty

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There’s a yellowy crust, a puddle of honey and a scattering of walnuts, and it’s quite the most delicious yoghurt I’ve ever tasted. I’m sitting outside Stani, a traditional dairy bar in a rather down-at-heel part of Athens, trying a selection of creamy dishes including ‘flower of the milk’ — the froth from milk simmered slowly over a low heat — and rice pudding with butter with honey. There’s also truly glorious flaky-pastry cheese, spinach and custard pies. I’ve joined up with Carolina Doriti, a guide from Culinary Backstreets, to tour some of the lesser-known food highlights of Greece’s capital city.

Pies, she tells me, are an important part of Greek cuisine, varying according to which region they originated from. “This is a typical pie from Epirus,” Carolina explains, cutting light, flaky, cheese-filled slices. “It’s the most common village-type pie you’ll find in Athens.”

Next we search out loukoumades — the fried doughnuts available all over the city but tasting rather different at the marvellously old-fashioned Ktistakis coffee shop. The dough — made using a secret recipe — is formed into small balls that are deep-fried before being soaked in syrup and sprinkled with sesame seeds and cinnamon. With each plate comes a warning — pop them in your mouth all at once, otherwise the pool of warm syrup will spill right down you. Then there’s Mokka, whose coffee is made using a traditional Greek hovoli (a coffee-maker that uses sand to heat the drink slowly).

A trained chef, Caroline is passionate about Greek cuisine and expertly weaves a path through the Central Market, pointing out the best fish, pork and tomatoes, before leading us to a tiny stall selling herby sausage patties with salad, olives and a glass of tsipouro (a pomace brandy). Then I follow her to a street with antiquated shops selling wild Greek herbs, before finding her favourite souvlaki shop, Kostas, where skewered, grilled meat is stuffed into a pitta, with tomatoes, parsley and ‘special’ sauce.

The last stop of the tour takes us through an arcade to To Triantafilo tis Nostimias (‘The Tasty Rose’), a seafood taverna with old Greek film posters on the walls that’s only open for lunch and frequented mainly by locals. We share plates of fava (broad bean dip), boiled wild greens, anchovies, sardines and calamari. Before heading back to the market to pick up the shrimp she bought earlier, Carolina hands me a copy of Culinary Backstreets’ An Eater’s Guide to the City: Athens, filled with key foodie spots on the tourist trail.

Hidden in another arcade, I’m bowled over by I Kriti, a family-run restaurant serving dishes from Crete. My table is almost covered with dishes, including smoked apaki (pork sliced and fried till it’s crispy on the outside but soft inside), and tiropita, a feta-filled pie topped with sesame and honey. There are also tomatoes stuffed with a spiced cream cheese, fried stuffed olives and a dakos salad, which has a base of oven-dried barley bread topped with tomatoes, olive oil, creamy cheese and cretama, a samphire-like plant that grows near the seashore.

Takis Katchoulis offers each guest a welcome raki and often sits down for a chat, proferring more fiery alcohol. “Although in this economic climate everybody is shutting down, I’m expanding,” he says. “People love the place. It’s the love, the meraki (passion) and the quality of the food, and most importantly, my wife the cook.”

At Chryssa, I learn from Chryssa Protopapa (the owner and chef) she saved for years to open this new restaurant after losing her previous one in the crunch. On the menu is traditional Greek cuisine with a modern flair, like delicate pies, and spit-roasted chicken served with flatbread. I order sides of fresh tzatziki, a beetroot dip and a plate of chips sprinkled with sea salt and fresh oregano. Nothing costs more than €9 (£6.40).

Bucking the crisis is a bit of a trend for some of the city’s restaurants. Take Cookoovaya, recently opened by five top local chefs in a beautiful space on a residential street behind a hotel. The menu describes it as ‘wise cuisine’, and the shrimp carpaccio with seaside greens and courgette purée, and octopus (slow-cooked then chargrilled) with fava and roasted onions filled with tomato vinegar jelly nods to such sageness. Dishes change twice a day and chef Manos explains it’s not as fiery in the kitchen as one might expect with five chefs and their egos working together. “We’ve nothing to prove,” he says. “We’ve all worked somewhere else before and had success, so together we have synergy.”

At To Mavro Provato, a new Greek mezedes bar, small plates are brought before me, including kritharoto — a traditional pasta with mushrooms and truffle oil — and lamb, cooked in paper with herbs, onions and Cretan gruyère.

From here, I find cocktail bar The Clumsies — another new spot — climbing the stairs to an experimental kitchen where they’re distilling the essence of blue cheese and mixing it with alcohol. I sip their own premium gin and cocktails made with lemon frappe, bitters, oregano and rosemary. I tell them how I like it — not too sweet, not too creamy — and they blend my drink to my taste. One of ‘the Clumsies’, Vasilis Kyritsis, laughs as she tells me, “A friend observed that we spilled a few things behind the bar, but we say the right way is to be a little bit clumsy.”

For a final toast, in another gem hidden in an arcade, I perch at high tables at By The Glass, which stocks stock fabulous modern Greek wines that are far from the petrol-like, rough wine of old. Indeed, after trying a flight of tastes recommended by the sommelier, I soon discover the country’s wine truly has upped its game.

Greece’s economy may be in crisis but the people still know how to have a good time. As my friend Dimitra explains, “Even though it’s in a mess, everyone is out for a coffee and a drink. It’s a way to forget your problems and decompress.” We all raise a glass to that.

Kostas downtown. Image: Manteau Stam/Culinary Backstreets

Kostas downtown. Image: Manteau Stam/Culinary Backstreets

Five Athens food finds

Souvlaki
Athens’ favourite fast food is a pitta stuffed with grilled meats, salad and sauce, and the city isn’t short of cafes and stalls cooking them up.

Greek yoghurt
Sample freshly-made yoghurt, served by waiters formally attired in white shirt and black trousers at dairy bar Stani (‘Barnyard’).

Loukoumades  
These fried doughnuts (above) drenched in syrup are found all over the city.

Greek coffee
Try thick, strong ‘hovoli’ coffee — heated slowly in a tray of warm sand.

Culinary backstreets
Discover the food secrets of Athens and taste dozens of the city’s best dishes with Culinary Backstreet.

Shrimp carpaccio, Cookovaya.

Shrimp carpaccio, Cookovaya.

Four places for a taste of Athens

Kriti
The food may hail from Crete but this family-run restaurant is now an Athens institution. Over a free raki, owner Takis Katchoulis will talk you through the dozens of dishes cooked by his wife and served by his daughter and her husband. There’s saganaki (fried feta in filo crusted with honey and sesame seeds) and sfakiani pitta, made with mizithra cheese. There’s also apaki sausage and fiery ribs prepared with red peppercorns.
How much: A selection of plates to share with free raki from around £10 per person.

Cookoovaya
Take five of the city’s best chefs, give them free reign in the kitchen to create food they say is ‘bright and clear without adornments’, and you get the wonderful Cookoovaya. The menu changes twice a day, with meat and fish cooked in a wood-fired oven or on a charcoal grill. Specialities include chargrilled octopus, sea bass carpaccio and ergolavos (an almond biscuit), served with almond cream and strawberry compote.
How much: Three-course dinner without wine from £18 per person.

Chryssa
In a light airy room, painted in grey hues, chef Chryssa Protopapa serves traditional Greek dishes with a modern twist. There’s a selection of dips such as beetroot with yoghurt, parsley, garlic and crushed walnuts, and five salads. There’s lamb fricasée with egg-lemon sauce, fennel, leek and seasonal salad and herbs, sensational chips with oregano and exquisite pastries, as well as semolina halva with cream, pistachio and caramel syrup, and cheesecake with honey.
How much: Three courses without wine from £9 per person.

To Mavro Provato
Its name meaning ‘Black Sheep’, To Mavro Provato serves small plates of home-style Greek food using seasonal ingredients, served in a room with simple marble-topped tables and wooden chairs. There’s a salad of katiki domokou — a soft, goat’s cheese produced in the Domokos area — and a riff on moussaka using a bechamel of minced chicken and spinach, or veal with tomato and eggplant purée.
How much: Three courses from £12 per person without wine.


Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)