The grizzled Greek in the faded undershirt ambles ominously toward our table on a cobblestone pedestrian lane in Athens, the floodlit Acropolis beaming high overhead. He looks desperate. His clothes look worse. I figure the guy is homeless or, this being Greece, a tax evader, and has taken to stalking innocent tourists caught with their hands wrapped around souvlaki sandwiches.
Indeed, I’m helpless with pleasure, spellbound by that souvlaki – skewered lamb chunks, onions, tomato, cucumber and tzatziki nestled inside warm pita enhanced with meat drippings. It’s so satisfying that already, on the first evening of my very first visit to Greece, I’ve decided this untidy tourist spot is clearly better than every other Greek restaurant on earth, the exception being the ones owned by the man across the table from me, Costas Spiliadis.
Spiliadis, who was born in Greece and emigrated to Canada at 19, has agreed to take me around his native land, primarily to teach me how to eat. Immediately he proves invaluable, explaining that the fellow coming toward us will certainly expect money, but only because he is the owner of the restaurant, which is named Savvas. “There are always moments like this in Greece,” says Spiliadis happily. “The basic experience you will have here is wonderful, but then there are always moments – some good, some better, a few maybe even ugly. But they are so special, you should never try to repeat them.”
I have been just about everywhere in my life, but Greece had never caught my attention. I didn’t even visit Plato’s Retreat, a notorious Manhattan swingers’ club, in the 1970s. I was pretty certain the food of Greece wasn’t worth the trouble, primarily because the dishes I’ve tried in North America consisted mostly of overcooked fish and overdone meat, both soaked in lemon juice. Spiliadis – henceforth I’ll call him Costas, as everyone does – has been the one Greek restaurateur I’ve held in high regard, and I’ve felt that way for 15 years. When I first dined at his restaurant, Milos, the original in Montreal, I tasted exquisite grilled fish as well as yogurt and honey that possessed goodness I suspected only the gods could bestow. He now has a branch of Milos in New York, conveniently near me, plus an outpost in Athens, with South Beach and Las Vegas to come.
When I first met Costas, he seemed possessed by divine madness, a unique Greek trait that causes men to go to insane lengths in pursuit of their passions, his being superlatively fresh fish. As a friend of his told me, “He’s more Greek than any Greek who lives here.” He is also devoted to the cuisine of a country sorely in need of the faithful. Together, the two of us came up with a list of classic dishes that he thought were underappreciated and I had rarely liked: baby goat, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), moussaka, pites (pies and turnovers), baklava and, of course, the usually dreadful souvlaki. Costas, understandably, also finds greatness in the products of the sea. Greece is a nation of some 6,000 islands, and every one of them has fish swimming around it.
At the moment, however, I can think of little but this superbly satisfying souvlaki. I explain to him that I am thinking of changing the focus of this story, calling it “Who Needs Fish?” He grimaces and says, “Thank you so much. But I don’t care. I am on a mission for my country, so whatever works for my country works for me.”
I have never wanted a boat. I have always considered boats an unjustifiable indulgence, simply because I am from the northeast United States, where boats spend most of the year sitting still and the rest of the year going nowhere in particular. Yet I cannot imagine ever returning to Greece without a boat at my disposal, and Costas has one. It cruises at 28 knots, which means we can go anywhere fast. It is not exceptionally large, merely perfect, and the two-man crew – the captain is Sifis, 43, and the mate is Alexis, 25 – are kind and competent, the two people I would most like to spend my life travelling around the islands with, especially since I’ve never had the good fortune of attracting the attention of a Greek woman.
We set off for the island of Aegina, where we walk through a tiny covered fishmarket and Costas grabs a fresh anchovy, guts it with his fingers and hands me a fillet, saying, “Sushi.” It is, sort of. We head for Hydra, an island without cars, where donkeys meet the boats, and we walk up winding paths past bougainvillea, caper bushes, fig trees, oleander and lemon trees whose fruit falls to the ground, unwanted. All I can think is that a lemon costs 75 cents in supermarkets where I live. I tell Costas how shocked I am that the Greeks would waste lemons, because it seems to me they need every one in order to soak their cuisine in citrus. He tells me not to confuse Astoria, a section of New York, with Athens.
When the boat – named M/Y Milos, of course – docks in an empty cove, we swim, me wary of the current, Costas fearing nothing. Then his crew serves us salmon and eel smoked by an 80-year-old man from Thraki, which is Thrace to those of us who barely remember reading The Iliad. We drink raki made by a monk from someplace so obscure, I doubt anybody but Costas has shopped there. The snack leads to our first argument. I tell him this is not a fair sampling of Greece because everything is specially selected by him, a man who is never wrong about food. He insists that every small-town taverna patronized by locals will be excellent and affordable. We agree on a deal: On our final day, when we drive back to Athens from the north, he will allow me to pick the town and restaurant, and the experience will prove that I am wrong to be so distrustful.
A few days later, his boat meets us at the island of Kythira, well to the south. The first of our many lunches there – all outdoors, like almost every meal in Greece – is in a coastal town named Avlemonas, at tables set on a rock that juts out over a tiny cove reputed to be Aphrodite’s bathing quarters. (It’s not my place to question whether she washed there or not.) The meal, at a tiny taverna named Botzio, is typical: white wine made by a friend of the restaurant owner, smoky charred-eggplant salad, fried cheese and much more. At tavernas, the food keeps coming; the plates are never changed.
Costas has a home on Kythira. In fact, he’s spent a decade buying up much of a tiny, partly abandoned village to build a cooking school here, restoring and modernizing the buildings while retaining their historical resonance. It is the fields of Kythira that captivate me. Wild thyme is everywhere – the island is famous for it. Wild fennel grows alongside the narrow roads, precisely at sideview-mirror height, and sometimes, when you get out of your car, it will smell like licorice from being whipsawed by the plants.
We drive to dinner at a small, family-run restaurant called Filio, the best on the island, started in 1998 by a young husband and wife just out of college, with their mothers in the kitchen. It is open for only three months, and the rest of the year the family gathers, harvests and puts away food to use during the summer season. I have no idea what to expect from the food – this is a rare Greek restaurant that doesn’t serve fish – but I am astounded by the dolmades, the first I have ever appreciated. Always, grape leaves surrounding a rice-and-meat filling are tough and bitter, but these are young, fresh, tender, possessing a hint of herbaceousness, and the stuffed leaves sit in a sauce that is a little creamy and a touch lemony, so luscious it somehow reminds me of sabayon. Then two variations on the theme of young, pleasingly gamey goat appear. The first is oven-roasted, so that the meat boasts caramelized bits, and is accompanied by potatoes dug up the day before and roasted in the juices of the goat. The second is cooked on top of the oven so the meat is softer and sweeter, and with it come french fries made from potatoes of the same provenance. I can’t decide which is more satisfying.
Afterwards, I walk with co-owner Nikos Kalligeros through the garden of the restaurant, which is surrounded by wild herbs and edible plants. I explain to him that in Greece, fruit and herbs lie around like roadkill, waiting to be collected, but in America a man wandering through woods and fields could starve. He says, “This is hard for me to understand.”
Parparoussis Winery, owned by a friend of Costas, is located on the outskirts of Patras, Costas’ hometown, in an industrial and manufacturing corridor. The setting is reminiscent of Château Haut-Brion, the great French estate on the edge of the city of Bordeaux, although Parparoussis is far more quixotic. The family home is surrounded by fruit trees, and semi-domesticated animals wander among them. At dinner we are served a homemade, savoury pie made with small brown eggs that come from the hidden nests of almost-wild chickens. Only the family dog is able to find and collect the eggs, and he eats most of them on the way home. We have coq au vin accompanied by a red wine made from the agiorgitiko grape. It tastes remarkably like Bordeaux, but perhaps it is the locale that has me thinking this way.
Finally comes baklava, made with walnuts, almonds and honey from Crete. I am a man who has walked the streets of Istanbul in search of perfection in baklava, and I have tasted none to equal this. When I express awe, one of the daughters invites me to join the family at lunch not just the next day but every day, and to bring friends. Her mother, who does all the cooking, looks bemused.
This, I believe, is the Greece that Costas loves best, a Greece of shocking sophistication but no pretension. It is simplicity not at odds with privilege and living well, the modern Greece he wants the world to discover. He says, “I want to go to the prime minister and say to him, ‘I’ll give you a million dollars to make me minister of tourism for a year.’”
We have a similar dining experience on the slopes of Mount Olympus, at Domaine Katsaros, a small family winery started 28 years ago by the father, who has been succeeded as winemaker by his son. As much as I enjoy the wines of both these estates, it is the women of the households – the cooks – who I would most like to take home with me. Here we have moussaka, in my opinion the worst food ever brought to the New World from a foreign land. This moussaka, however, made with ground lamb, fried eggplant and béchamel, comes in assorted hues of gold, brown and yellow. I am instructed to wait 15 minutes for it to cool, but I cannot. I have a piece, and then I have a second piece 15 minutes later, and I realize I would eat a slice every 15 minutes for the rest of the day had I the capacity.
On the way back to Athens, on the same day that I will have dinner at Milos, we have our showdown. Costas, who is nothing if not fair, hands me a detailed road map and tells me to pick whatever town I want. In the end, I randomly point to a road sign for a town named Achladi. There is only one restaurant that we can find, named Kavos, and it has tables with umbrellas on the edge of the water. We walk inside, with me doggedly reminding Costas that he is forbidden to negotiate our meal with the owner. She is confused by my refusal to allow the man standing next to me to open his mouth.
I will summarize: The salad, bread and all the rest are quite good. The fish is unbelievable. Fried shrimp from local waters. Small grilled langoustines. Large grilled langoustines. A fish I cannot name, meaty and exquisitely cooked. (I wouldn’t even allow Costas to identify it for me.) During the meal, a boat pulls up to the beach – it is the husband, arriving with more fresh fish that he has bought from local fishermen. Costas again fillets an anchovy with his fingers. It is better than the first one I had back on Aegina, and when I ask him why, he tells me to splash water from the gulf on my face, then lick off a few drops. Hard as it is to believe, the water is delicious.
A woman from the village arrives carrying a huge tiropita, a cheese pie made with filo dough, that she has prepared for a private luncheon. A kindly patron prevails on her to give me a slice, which she does with pleasure, and it is beautiful: warm, runny, cheesy and crunchy. It is one of those accidental discoveries that Costas reminds me are commonplace in Greece. I tell the owner how sad I am that she does not serve this dish, and she says, “When you come back, I will have my mother make one for you.”
At 10 p.m. that night, I sit down with Costas to dine at Milos, located in the Hilton Athens. It is much too late for me, but Costas reminds me of local customs. “We get patrons who come at midnight, just shaved, patting on cologne, ready to start the night.”
Costas’ grilled octopus is like no other: soft, firm, slightly charred. I always think great octopus tastes a little like corned beef, but I suspect that is an eccentricity of a New Yorker. His hortopita – filo dough encasing herbs and greens – is crunchier than the cheese pita at the seafood restaurant, more refined, but I inform Costas that he cannot compete with a sweet little old lady. He acknowledges the impossibility. We eat wild oysters harvested 30 metres beneath the sea – briny, chewy, iodiny, minerally. An unrivalled delicacy. His sea urchins have a wildness to them, too; they are more intense than those I eat in the States. Even his tiny doughnuts, made with walnuts and honey and cinnamon, are spectacular, although perhaps not quite so special as the baklava. But I do not wish to remind him again that he has been bested by a home cook.
Still, I have to concede that he has been right about everything, starting with the souvlaki and ending with the seafood restaurant by the gulf. I am a little confused by this. I picked the place, yet he gets credit for it. I wish those Greek philosophers were still around to help me understand why every time I argue with Costas, I lose.
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Where to Stay
The grand refurbished Hilton Athens was built in the 1960s but is as striking as ever, thanks to sleek wooden furniture, a popular rooftop bar and Acropolis views from some of the rooms. After a meal at Estiatorio Milos on the ground floor – don’t miss the best taramosalata of your life – head to the executive lounge, where a swell machine dispenses a variety of honey. It may not be as sweet as the views, but it’s close.
46 Vassilissis Sofias Ave., Athens, 30-210-7281000, hilton.com
Artwork is everywhere in the Primarolia Hotel in Patras; even the bathroom amenities come with artistic labels. Every one of the 14 rooms is unique, ranging from bold and minimalist to Baroque, but one thing they all have in common is an in-room espresso machine.
33 Othonos Amalias St., Patras, 30-2610-624900, arthotel.gr/primarolia
Ideally situated on the water and a short stroll from the White Tower of Thessaloniki, the Daios Luxury Living hotel pays tribute to a city famous for sweets: The breakfast buffet includes rice pudding, cream-filled phyllo pastry, fruits in syrup, dried and sliced fruits and nuts. This could be where Pheidippides carbo-loaded in 490 BC before running the first marathon.
59 Nikis Ave., Thessaloniki, 30-2310-250200, daioshotels.gr
Where to Eat
Follow in Alan Richman and Costas Spiliadis’ steps, and taste the heart of Greece in these spots.
Filio Kythira, 30-27360-31549
Kavos Achladi, 30-22380-31513, kavosachladi.gr
Savvas Mitropoleos 86, Athens, 30-210-3219919 Or taste Spiliadis’ own homage to his homeland at his new restaurant Cava (find it among “Canada’s Best New Restaurants”) or at Estiatorio Milos in Montreal, Athens, New York and, coming soon, Las Vegas and South Beach.
Cava 5551, av. du Parc, Montréal, 514-273-7772
Estiatorio Milos 5357, av. du Parc, Montréal, 514-272-3522
Estiatorio Milos 125 W. 55th St., New York, 212-245-7400
Estiatorio Milos Within the Hilton Athens, 30-210-7244400
Estiatorio Milos Within the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, 3708 Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas (opening next month)
Estiatorio Milos South Beach (slated for December 2011) All at milos.ca
What to Do
For the ultimate elite journey, charter the M/Y Milos, Costas Spiliadis’ boat, and eat your way around some of Greece’s 6,000-plus islands. At over 50 feet in length, this Aicon 56 Flybridge is what you’d call a proper yacht (satellite TV included), staffed by Sifis Kontorinis, the captain, and Alexis Arapakis, the steward. Arapakis was formerly a waiter at Estiatorio Milos in Athens and still works there when the boat isn’t chartered.
milosyacht.com Call ahead to tour one of these wineries – and if you’re lucky, get a meal at the family table.
Domaine Katsaros On the slope of Mount Olympus, Krania, 30-24950-41666
Parparoussis Winery 1 Achilleos St., Proastio, Patras, 30-2610-420334, parparoussis.com