Continuing with our series highlighting ﬁve memorable meals at ﬁve restaurants in a variety of countries, this month we’re focusing on Greece. Why Greece? Because we’re gearing up for our October 2018 Crete Culinaria with Chef Ana Sortun and Cookbook Author and food writer, Aglaia Kremezi.
As was true of our January blog about ﬁve memorable meals in Italy, our favorites wouldn’t necessarily land on the “best of” lists in Bon Appétit or the LA Times. Instead, they meet Oldways’ own “best of” criteria: They’re restaurants that touch their patrons with authentic food, with a unique experience, and with their commitment to celebrating the traditions of the place they occupy—thereby making the old ways relevant and current for all of us to enjoy.
Today’s top choices don’t include Crete, where we’re about to explore; we’re saving the best of Crete until after our October 2018 Culinaria. We’re also bypassing Chios and Lesbos, where Oldways spent so much time in the late 1990s, and where we hope to visit again soon. The restaurants below are chosen from recent visits, as ones that keep the old ways alive in delicious and vibrant ways.
Café Avissinia is a classic taverna near the famous ﬂea market in Monastiraki Square in Athens. You may have to look hard for the restaurant, peering around chairs or tables or whatever is piled up in stalls at the busy ﬂea market. But once you ﬁnd it, you’ll feel comfortable and comforted by the place and its food.
We brought a culinary group of over 50 people to Café Avissinia in November 2016, threading our way on foot from our hotel to Monastiraki Square through the Plaka neighborhood, and luckily ending up seated in the upper dining room, with a view straight up to the illuminated Acropolis. If the view isn’t enough, the food is also special.
Diana Farr Louis writes about Café Avissinia in Culinary Backstreets, “That the café blends in perfectly with the square was no accident. Its owner-founder, Ketty Koufonikola, chose the location because it reﬂected her own interest in art and antiques. And because it seemed like a good place where she could combine them with her other passions, cooking and entertaining.”
Ketty’s son Nicholas runs the restaurant these days, and he put together a great family-style menu for us, starting with crushed Greek olives with lemon and coriander, taramosalata (a Greek meze made from ﬁsh roe mixed with olive oil, lemon, and bread or potatoes or almonds); fava beans with capers and onions; cabbage salad and soft goat cheese sprinkled with crushed peppercorns; and ending with desserts of koushaf (a compote of dried ﬁgs, prunes, and apricots), baklava, a rose petal dessert with mastic ice cream, and prunes stuﬀed with nuts. As we were leaving, Nicholas gave me a copy of Ketty’s cookbook, Ketty of Café Abyssinia (both spellings are used), which happily brings back the delicious memories of Café Avissinia.
The Electra Palace Hotel sits in the middle of Athens’ Plaka District, just under watchful eye of Athens’ Acropolis. When you venture to the top ﬂoor restaurant (or to the pool), you are treated to a view for the ages, one that takes your breath away. Whether you are ﬂoating in the pool during the daytime, or enjoying dinner at night, the view of the Acropolis is something special.
And while you may pooh-pooh hotel dining rooms, the rooftop restaurant of the Electra Palace can be just as special as the view it features. The menu showcases local organic products from small farms: lentils, vegetables, olive oil, olives, and wild mushrooms. Often noted as a top restaurant in Athens in annual reviews, the Electra Rooftop Restaurant is one of those hotel dining rooms that proves the exception.
I ﬁrst went to Ouzeri Aristotelous at the recommendation of Eva Varellis Kanellis from the American Farm School in Thessaloniki. I was alone in Thessaloniki planning the 2016 Oldways Culinaria, on a broiling hot night, and Ouzeri Aristotelous was a perfect oasis of calm and quality.
The restaurant is located in a greenery-ﬁlled courtyard, close to the main Aristotelous Square. The menu is classic: fresh and clean mezedes (mezes), salads and seafood. This was the restaurant I took the Oldways staﬀ to when we arrived in Thessaloniki a few days before the Culinaria started. I’d go back any day!
On that same planning trip I asked my hotel concierge for recommendations, and Palati was his number one pick. While some say Palati is a bit more touristy than most Oldways hidden gems, that’s not a reason to stay away. The restaurant is tons of fun and the food is solidly good.
Palati is located in the old Egyptian market area in Thessaloniki now called Ladadika. As you walk by, you’ll hear the traditional Greek music they play every night of the week, and then be lured in by the traditional Greek taverna menu. Palati made a special menu for Oldways—dubbed “Sara’s Traditional Menu”—including some of my Greek taverna favorites: tzatziki (everything green, as Ana Sortun says), grilled and smoked eggplant, grilled halloumi, Greek salad, grilled calamari, dorade, and octopus.
We ﬁnished the meal by dancing the night away, led by Didem Hosgel, Chef de Cuisine at Sofra in Cambridge, Massachusetts and expert belly dancer. Our entire group danced in circles and in twosomes, feeling like we were Saloniki natives. What could be better!?
Aglaia Kremezi’s Kea Artisanal is not truly a restaurant. However, you might not ﬁnd a better meal anywhere in Greece than in her kitchen and at her cooking school.
I’ve known Aglaia for more than 25 years, as a top journalist, food writer, and award-winning cookbook author, and as a friend of Oldways who has helped us organize interesting conferences in diﬀerent regions of Greece. In 2001, after years of living in Athens, Aglaia moved to the island of Kea with her husband Costas, and later started a cooking school called Kea Artisanal. Here, Aglaia and Costas welcome individuals and groups to their home to learn how to prepare wonderful Greek foods.
Chef Ana Sortun has also known Aglaia for many years, so we knew we wanted to visit Aglaia and Costas at Kea Artisanal as part of our 2016 Culinaria in Greece. Despite worries that a stormy sea might prevent our vist, the day brought bright blue skies and an early morning calm for our hour-long ferry ride to Kea. As soon as we arrived at Kea Artisanal, Aglaia and Ana began their cooking demonstration of Skordalia (garlic and potato dip or spread) and Crunchy Cheese Pie (Aglaia calls it Lazy Woman’s pie). Afterwards we settled in at 4 long tables set in the sunshine and under Aglaia’s pergola for a spectacular lunch of Skordalia with greens and beets, Crunchy Cheese pie, carrots with olives and baked gigante beans. It was a perfect meal and a perfect day.
If you love Greek food, or want to know more about Greek food and are itching to experience Greek restaurants ﬁrst-hand, please join us in October 2018 for Oldways’ Crete Culinaria. It will be unforgettable.
Sara Baer-Sinnott, Oldways President