In Santorini, a restaurant brings the past to life

Selene restaurant, that The New York Times once included on its list of the ten most spectacular in the world, has now turned a new page.

I met Giorgos Hatziyannakis, Selene’s proporietor, in the early ‘90s when we planned the first ever Oldways Mediterranean food conference with Greg Drescher and the late Dun Gifford. It was held in Chalkidiki, Greece’s northern resort, a place of bewildering beauty where verdant surroundings edge into the crystal waters.  But our luxurious, obtrusively large hotel, which was practically in the middle of nowhere, was totally incongruous with the incredible local flora and fauna – fittingly, it has since turned to a casino. Giorgos was an invaluable help to me as I struggled to bring the atmosphere and flavors of the various Greek regions into the concrete, impersonal hotel halls and verandas. Journalists and food writers from the US and other parts of the world who came to taste authentic Greek food still remember Hatziyannakis’s stand where he fried marides — tiny Aegean fish — and served tomatokeftedes – the traditional Santorini tomato fritters — and other meze from the Cycladic islands.

  Slide Show: In Santorini, a restaurant brings the past to life

At a time when most upscale Athenian restaurants served bad imitations of French and Italian dishes, Selene dared to experiment in the vernacular with mashed yellow split peas — the Greek fava, a traditional Santorini product. Hatziyannakis insisted that the restaurant’s menu showcase the tiny and densely flavored tomatoes of the island, the bulbous capers and their leaves, hard barley rusks, and sweet white eggplants — all ingredients indigenous to Santorini. He is a pioneer who inspired many younger restaurateurs, and helped promote not just the food but also the wines of Santorini, which are now among the most popular of Greece’s vineyard exports. When, about 15 years ago, The New York Times included Selene in its list of the ten most spectacular restaurants in the world, it was no small accomplishment if you consider that our country has practically no gourmet restaurant tradition.

Now, unfortunately, like many other magnificent world destinations, the island of Santorini has fallen victim to its own success. With hordes of tourists, spewing forth from four or five huge cruise ships perpetually anchoring in succession on Santorini’s shores from spring to late fall, Selene’s original site in the village of Oia (pronounced Ee-ah) is now over-built and the surroundings lack the local color of which its owner was so proud. This year Hatziyannakis decided to move to Pyrgos, a less spoiled village in the center of the island. He chose a space that sits atop a charming private museum that demonstrates the Santorini of the past, a time when the island relied not on tourism but rather on its meager, but important, agricultural production. Excellent tomato paste was produced in nine factories up until the mid ‘70s, Hatziyannakis told me, showing me the wonderfully illustrated stages of the production in the museum. The local variety of non-irrigated small tomatoes, that recently started to be cultivated again, produces a thick and dense paste that bears no relation to the tomato paste of the Peloponnese or the north of Greece, the basic regions where peltes (tomato paste) is now manufactured. Delicious fava that the inhabitants of Santorini cultivated and peeled in hand-operated stone-mills, along with wine export profit and the income sailors brought to their families, were the core of the island’s economic life up until the mid ‘70s; now I heard that property in Santorini is sold at prices that rival those of Madison avenue in New York City (!)

Overlooking the last remaining vineyards and the shimmering gulf of the volcano in the Caldera, Selene and its menu is literally rooted on a mere handful of delicious products native to Santorini and the neighboring islands. Under the guidance of Giorgos Hatziyannakis, the young chef Constantina Faklari served me the most unexpected fava, scented with mastic — the crystalized sap of the mysterious mastic tree that grows on only half of the island of Chios. She also brought me a glass filled with a refreshing cold Santorini tomato soup enriched with a ball of savory ice cream made with myzithra – the Greek sheep and goat’s milk ricotta. Theodoris Iosifidis, Selene’s pastry chef, uses figs, pears, and peaches, as well as the ubiquitous Santorini tomatoes for his light desserts that are served both at the formal restaurant, as well as at the less expensive new wine and coffee bar. Here patrons can have a tasting of the many wonderful Santorini wines, both assyrtiko, the most popular local DOP white varietal  – which is exported to the US — but also the very rich mavrotragano, the new red from an age-old island grape — unfortunately in very short supply. Vinsanto, the fruity, naturally sweet wine produced from grapes partly dried in the island sun, complements any dessert or the traditional honey stuffed cookies, but also a simple plate of late-summer fruits.

Still recovering from the unfortunate death of his beloved partner and wife Evelyn, Hatziyannakis has managed to re-invent his successful restaurant, and with his dedicated team he is once again offering one-day cooking classes. His daughter, who studies in Athens, is not interested in continuing her father’s dream, but Hatziyannakis is not ready to stop trying to preserve the old island way, and if I can judge by the family of three Americans who insisted on a private lesson at any cost (which I witnessed on the day I visited Selene!), I am sure this trademark Cycladic restaurant, and the traditions it carries, have long lives ahead of them.


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