Monday, June 21, 2010

Eating My Way through Greece

I always say that on our annual summer vacation in Greece, as soon as I get off the plane and take a deep breath of the air, I instantly put on five pounds.

Eating is just better in this country—a Greek tomato is a thousand times tastier than an American one, and I’d be happy eating nothing but Greek salad as long as I can sop up the olive oil from the bottom of the bowl with crusty Greek bread.

I’ve been four days in Athens eating at some world-class restaurants.

As soon as we arrived at the Grande Bretagne, our favorite hotel, which overlooks Constitution Square and the Parliament building, with its skirted Evzone soldiers in their pleated skirts doing their hourly dance in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, we found in our hotel room a bottle of wine, a bowl of fruit and a white-chocolate figure of one of the Acropolis’s caryatids overlooking a half dozen handmade chocolates. (In my photo you can’t see the chocolates because somebody ate them!)

Lunch was often shared lobster risotto from a restaurant called Passajes in the courtyard of the shopping mall behind the GB Hotel. (Below is the view from the BG roof where we ate breakfast)

One night we walked to a nearby restaurant called Epta Thalassas (Seven Seas) nearby. The tabletops there are made of river stones and the ceiling lights are enclosed by woven fish traps. They feature exotic dishes like fresh sea urchin eggs (Aristotle Onassis used to send his sailors over the side of his yacht to harvest them by the light of the full moon. ) Also on the menu are “smoked eel sautéed with white wine and mustard”, “grilled Santorini sprat stuffed with tomato and coriander “, “hard roe from Mesolongi with blinis and fig pie”, and cockles. I had the “Dogtooth grouper filet cooked in the oven according to a Mt .Athos recipe.”

Thursday night we were invited by a friend to Spondi—probably the finest restaurant in Greece and the only one (he said) with two Michelin Stars. The peculiar thing about Spondi was that nothing you ate looked anything like what it was. For example, the chef sent, as an amuse-gueule, the tray of appetizers below: the round things on a stick like lollipops were foie gras rolled in popcorn crumbs (that’s what the waiter said). The cone-shaped things had a sliver of cheese in some savory cream sauce inside a pastry cone, and the cubes on the bottom are made from fruit with a Jello-like consistency.

I ordered sea bass which came topped with what looked like black caviar but was really some kind of grilled toast topped with black squid ink. Then, after the main dish came another surprise—meant to cleanse the palate before desert. It was a cool drink in a martini-shaped two-part glass containing a delicate a liquid of tomato and fruit juice (I think) with green sherbet in it, and underneath the goblet part of the glass, in a hollow stem, was dry ice (not meant for consumption) so the whole thing seemed to be smoking. For dessert I ordered the famous chocolate sablé mousse. If you look carefully, you’ll see the cigarette-shaped cookie (for want of a better name) has gold leaf on one end.

I knew that gold is edible if it’s pure –so I ate it. I first encountered eible gold at another Athens restaurant called Boschetto’s (now closed for renovation) when a black risotto made with squid ink arrived with a square of gold on top. Divine decadence!

Dinner Friday night on the roof of the Grande Bretagne, with a fabulous view of the Acropolis, was a lobster linguine. Saturday night at Alatsi, behind the Hilton hotel, we had Cretan food, including a traditional wedding dish featuring both chicken and lamb in a risotto, followed by three ice creams—rose, sage, and yogurt with honey and walnuts.

Now you see why I put on weight every time I get off the plane at the Athens airport.

But today, after getting up early, lugging my bags to the flying catamaran, and inhaling a cup of coffee (which basically saved my life), we arrived in Hydra.

But just plain Greek food is better than any haute cuisine covered with gold leaf. For lunch in Hydra’s harbor we had the classic, simple, and perfect Greek meal, which is best when eaten at an outdoor taverna near the water: Greek horiotiko salad with heavenly tomatoes, feta cheese and lots of olive oil for dipping, pan-fried red mullet fish (barbounia), and ice-cold local white wine from the barrel. We threw the fish heads to a half dozen happy taverna cats (who may be featured in my next Greek cat book) and then took a stroll around the harbor.

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