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June 12, 2017

Andy Hayler on the Cuisine of Athens

By Lauren Jade Hill

By Andy Hayler

Athens is the cradle of western civilization. The iconic rock of Acropolis on which the Parthenon stands, dominating the city, was the site of the first settlement here as far back as 3,000 BC. The history of food in Athens is also lengthy, drawing in influences around Greece, from the hearty stews of Epirus to the rustic breads of the Peloponnese, and incorporating the cooking of its neighbors in dishes such as dolma, the familiar dish of stuffed vine leaves that originated in Turkey.

Instagram @spondi_restaurant

Over recent years the restaurant scene in Athens has grown in sophistication, with Spondi leading the way. This restaurant, serving classical French food, gained a Michelin star in 2002 and a second in 2008. Located in central Athens with a secluded courtyard, its signature dish is langoustine tartare with caviar, grapefruit and celery coulis. It also expertly prepares classic dishes such as Challans duck with a rich reduction of the cooking juices.

Instagram @funkygourmetrestaurant

Spondi’s main rival at the top end of Athens dining is two star Michelin Funky Gourmet. As its name suggests, this is a much less traditional restaurant, and employs every trick in the modern chef’s arsenal: a Greek salad appears as an ice cream, and what looks like a boiled egg actually has a chocolate shell and mango and coconut in place of the egg yolk and white. There is even a modern twist on the classic dolmas dish, with delicate crisp vine leaves and quinoa in place of rice for the stuffing. There is a fun atmosphere and particularly slick service here.

Athens also has a trio of one star Michelin restaurants. Varoulko looks out over the boats in the harbor of Piraeus, while Botrini’s serves Italian food in a leafy suburban setting. The most spectacular spot to dine in the city is Hytra, which in the summer months is on the roof of the Onassis Cultural Centre, with a view across the city to the Parthenon.

In purely food terms, I actually prefer two other restaurants to any of these one star establishments. CTC serves genuinely inventive modern Greek dishes, such as “tagliatelle” actually made from strips of tender squid, served with bacon consommé and garlic chips. Aleria delivers modern interpretations of classic Greek dishes, such as “pastitsio”, a dish of baked pasta but with oxtail rather than the traditional ground beef, a Parmesan crust adding an extra flavor note.

If you prefer more casual fare then you can sample souvlaki  (chicken skewers) at O Thanasis, which has been operating since 1964 and is conveniently situated near the temple of Hephaestus, by far the best preserved of the ancient Greek temples in Athens. If you want to take a taste of the country home with you then pop into the Matouskas delicatessen just off the main Syntagma Square. Here you can buy the renowned pistachios from Aegina or perhaps an excellent selection of baklava.

Athens may be going through difficult economic times at the moment but its food scene is still vibrant.

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