Greek Eats -- Discovering the Cuisine of the Aegean

Random Lengths News | June 22, 2005
Greece is great, the people are great, the antiquities are great, the scenery is great, the ferries are great, the food is great and yes, the shopping is great. I can’t think of anything not great in Greece.

I spent three weeks in Greece this past spring, traveling with Zoe, my best friend since I was 17—a trip we had been planning for years. Zoe’s father was born in Athens and she had been to Greece with her family years ago. This is was my first trip to Greece, so I was making discoveries and Zoe was noticing changes, as well as discoveries.

Our first evening in Athens the hotel concierge recommended a local taverna. Although, most everyone speaks English, a lot is written in Greek, spelled different ways and undecipherable. The taverna was pronounced Fagopotti and was a few blocks behind the Marriott Ledra Athens. The taverna was a two story wooden room with balcony. Live keyboard and bazouki players had beautiful voices. Dinner was shrimp with feta, Greek salad and a moist whole grilled bass.

The following morning we left on an very informative and luxurious tour with Tasos Panagiotopoulos, recommended by John and Tom Papadakis. Taso took us to a splendid lunch at Nanopmoy in the Plaka. Lunch was roast lamb leg, roast potatoes; a special spring lamb fricasee with cooked lettuce and egg/lemon sauce; the sweetest red bell peppers; the sweetest sliced beets; and crusty bread.

We took a bus trip to Delphi (the most spiritually inspiring spot), in the mountains to the north. A lunch was included in the Amalia Hotel. It was terrible. We learned when taking such a tour, refuse the lunch part and find food on our own.

The next day we did dangerously good shopping in the Plaka. Lunch was at Diro’s, recommended by John. Swordfish shish kabob was excellent with tomato, onions, green bell pepper and potatoes and whole little zucchini. Boutari Winery (Santorini), was a dry red country wine.

Greek olive oils are so delicious, I could drink them by the cup.

To me, there is nothing as relaxing as a ferry ride. About five hours out of Athens, we arrived at the island of Mykonos. It somewhat reminds me of Taos, New Mexico, only on the sea. Mykonos has to be one of the cleanest places on earth, everyone is constantly scrubbing and painting and whitewashing.

Breakfast included with hotel was juices, olives, scrambled eggs with tomato and onion, cereal, feta, yogurt, bread, coffee and tea. Dinner at Restaurant Atlantida was toasted bread with olive oil and tomato, grilled swordfish or sea bass (both tasted pretty much the same, both were very good), with potatoes and zucchini, Greek salad and a fruit plate of pear, orange, strawberry, apple and kiwi.

I would really recommend the 30-minute boat ride from Mykonos harbor, to the island of Delos. Inhabited since the third century B.C., no one lives there now, but the French School of Archeology has excavated some exciting ruins.

Try to get a ferry that stops in Paros on the way to Santorini. A fourth century church built by Emperor Constantine has 1,000 doors. I love the Greek Orthodox churches, there are similarities, but every one from the tiny private churches to the huge structures is uniquely beautiful.

We arrived at Thira Port, Santorini in the late afternoon, in time to see the fabled sunset. Santorini is the favorite of Nicky (daughter of George Loizides), of George’s Greek Café Restaurant & Market. Myth has it this is the fabled Atlantis. A volcanic eruption about 1500 B.C. blew away half the island, leaving a caldera and some islands. It is also said the explosion caused a tsunami forcing the inhabitants of Akrotiri (on the southeast of the island), to flee and ending the civilization at Knossos, Crete. Both archeological sites are fascinating.

The hotel hugged the cliff, like most hotels in Thira. It was 179 steps to get to the path to go anywhere else. We dined often at the hotel dining room just below our room. Breakfast was juices, yogurt, turkey, ham, salami, cereals, scrambled eggs, eggs cooked any way to order, bacon, feta and gorgonzola, green bell pepper, tomato, olives, pastries and fresh and canned fruits.

Chef Kostos prepared chicken souvaki with tomato, green bell pepper, roasted red bell pepper, eggplant and zucchini. Another night it was fresh grouper, dense and flaky, a cross between halibut and sea bass with a lemon/oil dipping sauce. Greeks do not serve fish unless it is fresh.

Went to Ia to watch the sunset and picked up a strange gyro of chicken, tzadziki (cucumber/yogurt sauce), tomato, red onion and French fries in pita. After that I kept seeing French fries in gyros. Almost always French fries were offered with most dishes.

We begged for roasted potatoes. Nobody does roasted potatoes like the Greeks.

The five-hour ferry ride to Heraklion, Crete was pure bliss. Knossos is a 20 minute bus ride away. I had one of the best dinners of the trip at Oyzepi-Ouzeri of a center cut galeo (a smaller swordfish), brushed with garlic, olive oil and lemon, barbequed on an ancient grill in the busy street with a car parked out in the traffic so other cars would not hit the barbeque. It was superb and the Greek salad was served with about a pound slice of feta sprinkled with oregano and spicy olives.

The Megaron Hotel served the most elaborate breakfast buffet. A six-foot round table loaded with pastries: cakes, wine cake, marzipan cake, several chocolate cakes, chocolate mousse cakes, and—a brilliant idea—chocolate dipped baklava. Juices, fresh and dried fruits, Cretan cream delicacies (like rice pudding), eggs, frittatas, cheeses, preserves, yogurt and breads were a few of the delights.

A typical Cretan appetizer was enjoyed at Othonas Traditional Taverna in Old Town, Rethymno—a delicious yellow jalapeno-like pepper in tomato sauce with feta. A peppered chicken breast was interesting. Somehow, broccoli, carrots and zucchini are usually cooked to mush.

Greek Easter week was beautiful with candle light processions, flowers and special breads.

A loaf of Easter bread and candles wrapped with red satin ribbons were at our breakfast places on Good Friday. Red Easter eggs, chocolate Easter cake and special Easter cookies were served on the morning buffet.

A great dinner was eaten at “Harry’s”actually, George’s Taverna, but everyone calls George “Harry.” Whatever, he is a very charming, gracious man. Dinner started with complimentary ouzo (an anise liquer much like Pernod, I can drink about two sips), then a Greek salad, and local white wine. We found the local white or rose wines to be the best everyday wines. The main course was magnificent; jumbo prawns (big enough to be lobsters and full of coral), plain-grilled and Mexican-style, (a spicy red sauce), both had great texture and flavor, plus rice and baked potatoes, presented aglow with sparklers. Octopus and lamb are ubiquitous in Greece. Octopus hangs on lines outside many tavernas on Crete and may be served cold drizzled with olive oil, lemon and oregano or grilled. The Greeks cook the best lamb.

It is traditional to cook lamb outdoors on a spit on Easter Day. We walked around the harbor of Rethymno on Easter Sunday morning looking for lamb cooking. We found two usually tourist trap restaurants with spits. The first had leg of lamb and lamb innards turning and a sign promising rabbit. I love rabbit, but they really didn’t have any. We choose the second place Maria’s and enjoyed the very traditional barbecued lamb with potato wedges cooked in the juices and lemon.

We were told Crete is the bread basket of Greece, and where most of the produce is grown. In the port town of Chainia we stopped into 16th century Quonset hut looking structure Kafe Kriti oz Lyrakia, for a Cretan music session—musicians coming and going and jamming on fiddle, bazouki, drum and voice. We ordered a 1/2 bottle of Clos de Creta and were given a plate with traditional Cretan good garlicy sausage, mystery meat, cucumber slices, olives and a little hard bread and a honey cake.

Dinner around the bay of Chainia started with wild greens (somewhat between spinach and chicory), Greek salad and red mullet and red snapper, about six inches and bought by the kilo, served with a bowl of olive oil/lemon and a bowl of chopped parsley and red onion and way overcooked zucchini and potatoes. Mythos, is a really good Greek beer, since 1997.

Raki, the drink of Crete is like grappa. To me both are like straight alcohol and disgusting. However, I did taste a mulberry raki that was slightly drinkable and a delightful honey raki, the Cretans swear will cure sore throats and colds.

Back in Athens, Paris Pappadakis, general manager of G. B. Restaurant in the Grand Bretagne Hotel told us to try Vlasis Taverna where only Greeks go. We wondered when the taxi driver left us off in the middle of residential row houses. Finally, we found the tiny sign on a tree. We arrived about noon, Vlasis doesn’t start serving ‘til 1 p.m., but they let us sit in the dining room. Precisely, at 1 p.m. we were taken into the kitchen and asked to chose what we wanted. The superb meal consisted of roast lamb, chicken with lemon and rice, sweet red peppers, eggplant in yogurt and a little fresh tomato sauce, garlic and parsley and wild greens. After lunch we toured the Benaki Museum, I think the best museum in Greece.

Our last meal was overlooking the port on the lovely island of Aegina (just a 40-minute ferry ride from Athens port), our last great grilled Greek swordfish.

I love the simple goodness of Greek food. Where can one get great Greek food locally?

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