The last days of January found me in Athens, with José Andrés, the renowned chef-humanitarian, his wife Tichi, and Zaytinya’s concept chef Michael Costa. We strolled around the city tasting dishes and sipping wines and cocktails at some of the most talked-about restaurants and bars.
We had compiled a list of suggestions, but José surprised me when he chose Birdman, the Japanese-inspired Pub, for his fist afternoon bites and drinks in Athens. I had proposed we try a few cocktails there later in the night, since it was already past four, but this didn’t stop José from ordering most of the truly wonderful seafood and meat bites chef Ari Vezenes cooks on live fire. He loved the chicken liver and heart, even the Iberico Katsu that I was afraid would not meet his high standards…
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Dinner was at Bobena fish tavern in Kesariani, arranged by avgotaraho producer Zafiris Trikalinos, ‘one of the world’s most incredible delicacies,’ according to José who could not stop eating it, especially freshly cured as we had it in various dishes throughout our meals. Fortunately, Tikalinos Avgotaraho is available in the US and ideal for a precious Valentine’s meal.
The taramosalata with avgotaraho was as I remember it from my early childhood when this iconic Lenten meze was prepared with this precious Greek fish roe –before cheap cod-roe from Norway and Iceland became available. We We also had linguine with avgotaraho, and loved the two kinds of home-baked breads, and the delicious sea-urchins from Chanea, Crete. The chef chopped and served us his incredible slow-roasted eggplant salad, and José created his avgotaraho-sprinkled olive-oil-fried eggs, as well as a sweet version of meringue lightly sprinkled with avgotaraho…
Before our visit to the Central Market the next morning, we stopped for coffee at Mokka, the usual coffee spot. Besides the traditional Greek/Turkish coffee prepared on hot sand, Jose tried the cold brew which he loved. And we were surprised when visitors commented that these days Athenian cafés serve some of the best coffee in Europe.
January is a particularly good time for fish in Greece, and José was enchanted to find live karavides (langoustines) sold at a price that to me seemed exorbitant, but apparently it was considerably less than Spain or the US. He bought quite a few, and, at the newly established Hasapika restaurant in the Market, he proceeded to cook them for us full of joy! It is obvious that cooking is his favorite job and he misses it now that he is involved with World Central Kitchen and so many other things that keep him away from the kitchen. He simply boiled the langoustines in ‘water heavily salted similar to the sea,’ then peeled them and offered us sublime bites. He then braised some with olive oil and lemon, and fried eggs in their delicious sauce! For me this was one of the most memorable meals I ever had!
We then had a brief tasting at the humble Diporto, the old tavern José remembered from his previous visit, 20 years ago. Even after those incredible langoustines, the beans, chickpeas and fava still tasted wonderful, José exclaimed, as he was eager to be photographed with Mitsos, the old, tireless cook.
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It was a pleasant, not too cold afternoon, and José and Tichi decided to visit the Parthenon. Then we all met at Pharaoh, the much talked-about new restaurant which has become the young Athenians’ favorite, but it is unfortunately small which makes it particularly hard to get a reservation.
Chef Manolis Papoutsakis’ homey dishes may not have included much avgotaraho, but José loved them, while chef Michael Costa besides the food enjoyed the jazz music, well-chosen by the DJ who plays old vinyl records on the turntable. We enjoyed the chestnuts stifado, with pearl onions and warm spices, a dish from the mountains of Crete, and José loved the humble rice with cabbage and leeks, and the rare monkfish avgolemono with ascolymvrous –the thorn particularly loved in Crete. The slow-cooked zygouri (1-2 year old lamb) risotto was exceptional, as was the lamb, and rabbit. As for the long wine list, it included some new Greek natural wines, along with an eclectic selection of international labels.
José, along with everybody else, were delighted and he immediately posted on his Instagram: “Amazing NEO Taverna, celebrating the traditional dishes of Greece with touches of Crete island in a cool place, with awesome food and unique Greek wines with many indigenous grapes and awesome music.”
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Next morning I took chef Mickael Costa to Stani, the old loukoumades (fried dough-puff) and dairy shop, where my father used to take me and my sister when we were kids. It still makes THE best traditional, crunchy loukoumades in Athens.
On our way back, at a busy sidewalk we came upon a lady selling exquisite wild greens, in neat clean bunches: nettles, vrouves (white mustard shoots), mallow, chicory, sorrel, wild arugula.
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At Ergon Market we tried the freshly-grilled, sourdough Greek pita –very different from the crunchy-airy Zaytinya pita—which was drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with oregano and served with black, squid-ink taramosalata, which looked more impressive than it tasted. The lamb hunkiar, with mashed eggplant, and the shrimp saganaki were more interesting.
Nolan, star chef Sotiris Kontizas’ acclaimed small restaurant combining Japanese and Greek traditions, is always full. We only managed to get an outside table, braving the chill with portable heaters. We enjoyed zucchini and smoked eggplant salad with miso vinaigrette, raw shrimp and tuna in crunchy rice paper, and unusual fried chicken bites, among other dishes.
The last Athenian dinner for José and the team was at Kookoovaya, again lavishly arranged by Zafiris Trikalinos. He brought copious amounts of avgotaraho, which chef Periklis Koskinas served in various starters, mostly pairing it with morsels of raw fish. I particularly loved the sea bream topped with blood orange slices and avgotaraho, but also the less sumptuous paper-thin fried zucchini and his rif on the traditional greens’ pie he simply accompanies with thick yogurt.
Jose had a long discussion with the chef, and obviously would have loved to be able to get his hands on some of the exquisite fish the restaurant uses, but it was late and the kitchen was busy cooking for a large group of people…
Thinking back on my days with José in Athens, I would love to arrange for him to cook along with some of the chefs whose dishes he tasted. I only hope that he will soon return to Athens, which he characterized as a very interesting European food scene. Maybe he would also visit Crete and the north of Greece to sample wines and try his hand with our fish, vegetables, and meat, as it is more than obvious that the great José Andrés is certainly happier in the kitchen, cooking and creating for his friends and customers…