POSTCARD FROM GREECE: Great Meals in Athens and Paros

August 14, 2010

DSCN1023.JPGSunset on the roof, Paros

It’s almost lunch-time on Paros, and we’ll have a salad of potatoes, cherry tomatoes, Kalamata olives, briefly boiled zucchini and pickled caper leaves that I discovered at lunch the other day at the charming Siparos restaurant and grilled Haloumi cheese, a simple feast that’s just about all either of our appetites can manage on a day when hot winds are keeping us mostly in the pool or engaged in a game of trying to find try shadow in which to read.

Paris seems rather far away today, and from Bruno’s I-Phone I see that it’s raining there, which only emphasizes my deep sense of well-being at living mostly naked on a Cycladic island for ten days. Eating well is a vital part of any good vacation in my book, of course, and this year, I’ve been truly delighted by the food in Greece.

Spending a night in Athens before we took the ferry from Piraeus to Paros, we stayed at the Saint George Hotel up on Mount Lycabettus in the city’s chic Kolonaki neighborhood. Exhausted after a very early flight from Paris, we wanted dinner in the neighborhood, so I checked my running Athens file and we decided to go to Papadakis for dinner, because what I’d read about it sounded good and it was an easy stroll from the hotel. Though Athens is a bit tense this summer—no one knows how the serious austerity drive necessarily imposed by the government is likely to play out in the Fall, this palmy spot was packed with an almost entirely Athenian crowd whose casual chic belied the country’s troubles. Though there’s a fine view of the Acropolis from the dining room, we chose to sit outside and enjoy the welcome eucalyptus-scented breeze.

The menu read simply in English translation, but what followed was a truly excellent meal that began with plump Aegean shrimp that had been sautéed in garlic, hot peppers and excellent olive oil; a succulent octopus salad served on a bed of diced boiled potatoes in a lemony dressing; and a salad of tiny sublimely sweet plum tomatoes from Santorini with pickled caper leaves and a scoop of tangy ricotta like cheese from Paros (Owners Argyro and Manoli formerly ran a restaurant on the island and know its produce intimately).

The triumphant simplicity of this meal continued with an impeccably grilled grouper and a side of the bitter wild greens I can never get enough of in Greece, and enjoying all of it hugely, I couldn’t help but regret that the same cult of freshness is so difficult to find in Paris. The week before leaving for Greece, I tried desperately to find tomatoes, at any price, with real taste—the Belgian grown hot-house numbers in my local Franprix were totally out of the question, of course, but even what was on offer at the Saturday morning organic market in Les Batignolles was pretty mediocre, and I found myself dreaming about the tomatoes I’d recently brought back to Paris from the market in Narbonne, one of the best in France. Why, oh why, I wondered, couldn’t someone sort out the idea of shipping some of these glorious Gallic tomates up to Paris? And what tragic and perverse economics make it cheaper and more expedient to stock Parisian shelves with Breton, Dutch and Belgian tomatoes in the middle of the summer?

To be sure, you can pay through the nose for Joel Thiebault’s locally grown vegetables, and they’re lovely, but the quiet genius of this Greek meal made me wish anew that the city of Paris and the Ile de France region would launch a program to revive the ancient tradition of truck-garden farming that fed the city for centuries. During the last thirty plus years, so much has been lost in terms of locavore dining in Paris, what with the transfer of Les Halles to Rungis and the suburbanization of immediate countryside around the city.

A visit to several Athenian food markets underlined this regrettable state of affairs in Paris, as has all of the produce I’ve been cooking on Paros. Making a frittata for breakfast this morning, the cigar-sized pale green zucchini that I diced up were so fresh that they squirted when I cut into them, and the small locally grown red onion similarly bled a sweet white milk when they went under the knife.

DSCN1021.JPGDawn from the terrace on Paros

While enjoying an excellent lunch at Siparos near Naoussa at the northern tip of the island the other day, I couldn’t help but thinking about how much the food in the Cyclades has improved since I first showed up here as a pale and impoverished student gratefully escaping a London winter many years ago. If one ate pretty well then, the monotony of the restaurant menus was relieved only by our collective enthusiasm for Retsina, a wine I’ve long since lost a taste for, especially since Greece today is producing so many really outstanding wines. Instead, a younger generation of Greek chefs and restaurant owners seem to have eagerly embraced not only the country’s stunning produce but done a lot of research on local recipes and brought them out of home kitchens and into public settings.

At Siparos, the grilled octopus was creamy and delicious, and the clams grilled with wild fennel were so good we ordered a second very expensive portion.

Our waitress was thrilled, too, since she volunteered that this preparation was her grandmother’s and that she’d taught it to the chef when she started work there. Our grilled Sarre was superb, too, as was the salad I’m copying for lunch today.

We had a brilliant dinner last night at OEA, a restaurant in Punta that specializes in Greek cooking from Constantinople (Istanbul), and Asia Minor, aka Turkey, last night, too. A salad of chopped red beets was topped with thick, tangy yogurt and crumbled freshly toasted walnuts, while a flaky pastry was filled with curd cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and basterma, the pastrami-like salted meat that I love eating in Istanbul. Lamb braised with dried apricots, a recipe from Smyrna, was tender and tangy, while grilled minced lamp came with a spicy chutney of green and red peppers and tomatoes on grilled flat bread with herbed yogurt. With a bottle of Thema rose, it was a wonderful summer meal and happy proof of the fact that today there isn’t a corner of Europe where you won’t find smart, sophisticated cooking. In fact a generalized and quite passionate continent-wide interest in gastronomy may well be one of the European Union’s greatest and most delicious achievements. Now if only all of the Eurocrats in Brussels could get on the case of rejiggering the continent’s CAP (common agricultural policy) to favor seasonal, locally grown produce and the buyers for France’s big supermarket chains could be encouraged to do same.

OEA, Pounda Antiparos, Tel. 228-409-1220. Dinner for two with wine $120.

Papadakis Restaurant, 15 Fokilidou, Athens, Tel. 210-360-8621. Dinner for two with wine $150.

Siparos, Santa Maria, Paros, Tel. 697-701-7925. Lunch for two

  • Milt Gersh

    Hi, Is theiir a Greek restaurant in paris that serves the greek soup avgolemeno? thanks. Milt G.

  • Alexander Lobrano

    Since Greek food in Paris is generally disappointing, it's not normally on my local radar. If you're desperate for avgolemeno you might check and see if it's on the menu at Les Délices d' Aphrodite, 4, rue Candolle 75005 Paris, one of the few acceptable Greek tables in Paris. Best, Alec