Wednesday, August 7, 2019

About Our 11-Course, $600 Dinner

When you’re traveling, it’s the unexpected adventures that can be the most fun (or the scariest—or both.)  Nick and I are currently staying at Costa Navarino Resorts in Messinia, Greece, overlooking the Ionian Sea.  It’s my favorite resort in Greece for so many reasons, including their respect for nature, the environment, and the people, animals and traditions of the surrounding area.

When we checked in to Costa Navarino this time, we learned that they now offered a “Funky Gourmet Summer Pop-Up Restaurant” -- an “unconventional culinary experience” presented by the owners and chefs of the two-Michelin-starred Funky Gourmet Restaurant in Athens.  The pop-up restaurant at Costa Navarino, I read, is “located in the brand new Earth-sheltered Club house at the Bay [Golf] club house.” Nick made us a reservation for Saturday night, to my great excitement, because I had never ever eaten in a two-Michelin-star restaurant, even (especially!) in my single-girl days in the sixties when I lived in London and traveled frequently to Paris.

In our room in the Romanos section of the resort complex, I found a magazine which had an article about the two young, married Greek chefs—Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nikos Roussos--  who opened the “Funky Gourmet” restaurant in Athens in 2009, the only restaurant in Greece to serve a degustation menu. (The couple originally met at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. They have two children, aged four and almost two.)

Their first Michelin star came in 2012, the second in 2014.   Now they’ve closed the Athens restaurant temporarily, except for private events, and in November of 2020 they will reopen it in the newly re-launched Athens Hilton.  Meanwhile they opened the pop-up version here in Costa Navarino from July 8 to August 17, creating an all new 11-course menu based on their research about the traditional cooking of Messinia.  In the month of November, they will open a similar pop-up restaurant in Salzburg, Austria.

The magazine article stated that “There’s something ‘funky’ about all of their dishes, be it the unusual shapes, colors, textures or aromas.”  That was certainly true.  The meal we enjoyed was made up of eleven courses, and as we were told at the beginning, there were surprises and gifts throughout.
After a ten-minute taxi ride to Costa Navarino’s newest golf course, we were escorted to a table overlooking a stunning view of candlelit tables, green swards, olive trees reaching down toward the bay, and stars and a new moon overhead, appearing as the sun set.  We were welcomed by two servers, a man and a woman, who would be the main actors in the drama we were about to enjoy—explaining every course and adding ingredients, including special sauces and spices, to our plates as we watched. 

The first surprise of the evening was the price.  The servers handed us each a menu which began, “MESSINIAN LAND, Degustation Menu 220 Euros per guest, Wine and Drinks Pairing 90 Euros per guest, Picnic under the Olive Trees (Supplement 45 Euros per guest.)
Without a word to each other, we quickly decided to forego the opportunity to begin our meal while sitting under the olive trees on the sloping hill below for 45 euros.  We also chose to avoid the 90 euro pairing of a different wine with every course, choosing instead a bottle of a local rosé to take us through the meal.  (But two dishes were still presented with a special wine that the chefs felt was an essential partner to that course.)

Our servers warned us, before the food arrived, that we might be unwilling to try certain ingredients, namely fish roe, sea urchin eggs, and lamb’s brains.  I opted out on the brains, but okayed the fish roe and sea urchin eggs, which I’ve had many times in Greece.  Nick, being Greek, is fine with eating brains, not to mention the eyes of the roasted goat or lamb, which are often given to the honored guest in his native land.

Then the drama began with a “welcome course” that was not even on the menu.  Our servers brought us each a wrought iron tiny olive tree supporting three small, round, crusty appetizers called “travihktes” which they said were traditional in Messinia (but probably not served exactly this way, with pure gold leaf on one, bits of honeycomb that crackled like glass on another, and tiny marshmallows on a third.  They also included truffles and caviar.) I thought they would be sweet, but the flavors hovered between sweet and savory and were absolutely delicious!
Next course, housed in the first surprise gift of the evening, was presented as a small wooden box with a clasp, on top of which was burned: “Joan welcome to Funky Gourmet in Messinia!”    Nick received the same message, but written in Greek, welcoming “Nikola”.  Opening the boxes, we found in each one a single “Dipla”. I think of Diples as a Greek version of fried doughnuts, but this single Dipla was stuffed with something delicious (I think cheese) and decorated with fruits, veggies and cheeses.   And set on a bed of cut and dried figs.  The servers whisked the boxes away, saying they would be given back at the end of the meal, and they were—but now they were each filled with four small bottles of “Navarino Icons”—the famous olive oil of the region-- combined with different flavors

The third course, called “Kobe”, was a piece of watermelon flavored with thyme, fleur de sel, and including cheese underneath.  Then a beef demiglace was poured over it, as it sat in a large beef bone.
Course number four, called “Salad of the region” was arranged to look like a summer wreath, and included orange, potatoes and quail eggs, with siglino consommé poured over it.

The sun had slipped below the horizon and it was getting dark as we were presented course number five—called “Kolokythokorfades Ladera”. 

 “Kolokythi” means “zucchini” and “Ladera” means cooked  in olive oil, for which the region is famous.  But this dish looked to me like a poinsettia flower that had been dried.   (I knew that poinsettias are poisonous, so hoped I was wrong!) I learned that this was a flower of the zucchini plant that had been cooked and then dried for 24 hours in a desiccation machine, making it flat, crispy and tasty.  Hidden beneath the flower was an oblong thing that looked like a meatball.  Nick said that it was delicious because of the flavor of the hamburger, but it turns out that this was a vegetarian dish, featuring quinoa.  The last touch was to have an olive oil concoction poured over it.

Before course number six, listed as “Gourounopoula”, our servers cleared the table and then covered it with brown parchment paper.  Then they brought in round plates decorated with colorful (desiccated and edible) leaves and flowers, laid on a translucent circle which we were told was edible rice paper.  In the center was something that looked like lasagna, but was in fact pork belly on top of what, I can’t remember.  And nearby was placed a pot of plum sauce that we were told to add as we wished.  Then, around the table, were scattered crunchy things that we were told were fried pork, also to be dipped in the plum jelly.  There was no cutlery for this course, as we were supposed to roll up the circle of rice paper and eat it all like a taco.  This was tricky, but, as with several  other courses, we were furnished with warm, damp towels to clean our hands afterward.

(Dear Reader, I’ve walked you through the first six courses of our $600 meal and this is long already for a single blog post.  Tune in to my next post if you want to hear about the final five courses in which we eat: raw eggs , “Clever Sea Urchin Eggs”, a sherbet that began as a Greek salad, and a dessert --one of three--that exploded!)