Three Afternoons of Dining in Greece: Part 3
Are you a foodie traveling to Greece? Author Christopher Bakken talks about the culinary hot-spots in Thessaloniki.
This is the third of a three-part series on Greek cuisine by Christopher Bakken, author of Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table.View part 1 here and part 2 here.
Thessaloniki, Greece: Ouzeri Agora
5 Kapodistriou Str. Thessaloniki. Tel: (011 30) 2310 532 428
Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, offers the best casual urban dining of anywhere in Greece. Everyone admits this, even Athenians. Nowhere in Greece is there a more dazzling variety of mezedes, in part because of Thessaloniki’s geographical advantages. It is surrounded by fertile farmland: some of the best beans, grain, grapes, vegetables, and table olives in all of Greece are grown in Macedonia and on the nearby Halkidiki peninsula. Since Thessaloniki is the only major port connecting the Balkans to the Aegean, for hundreds of years such agricultural products have passed through the city on their way to markets elsewhere. Of course, Thessaloniki also hugs the Thermaikos Gulf, with its views of Mt. Olympus and its abundance of seafood. So the city’s chefs are working with the best of both land and sea.
I have so many favorite lunch-time places in Thessaloniki. There’s the famous Myrovolos Smyrni, tucked into the old Jewish market (32 Komninon St.) and also Ouzeri Aristotelous in a beautiful Art Deco arcade just off the quay on Thessaloniki’s main square (8 Aristotelous). But my latest mesimeriano obsession is Ouzeri Agora, in the Valaoritou district. When I lived in Thessaloniki twenty years ago, this was the city’s more or less abandoned garment district. Now the alleys are packed with funky bars, gastropubs, and hangouts for the thousands of hip university students who make Thessaloniki their home.
It’s surely worth opening your wallet for an opulent night-time meal at Ouzeri Agora. The service is impeccable (ask for Manolis) and the food is exquisite. But I like visiting in the afternoon: just off the main dining room is a small bar where you can order half portions of their menu items along with daily specials.
Nikos, the completely charming chef and bartender, has his impeccable mise en place ready to go by noon and he prepares many of the dishes to order, right before your eyes. Whether your order draft beer (they were pouring ice cold ALFA, one of Greece’s top breweries, when I was there in July), Cretan raki (without anise) or Macedonian tsipouro (strong and sweet with anise), Nikos will not allow your glass to be empty more than a few seconds. A chalkboard lists the daily offerings, but it’s best to just let Nikos feed you.
My favorite dishes, during the five or six mesimeriana I enjoyed there last month, included an outstanding cuttlefish dish. The cuttlefish were braised with spinach in white wine until very tender and almost sweet next to the rich and salty spinach. Agora’s grilled octopus was perfect too, though even better was an octopus stifado I ate one day. Usually stifado is a preparation for red meat or wild game, especially rabbit: it’s one of those slow-cooked braises meant to spend all day in the wood oven, redolent of allspice, tomato, wine, and bay leaf. I’d never heard of an octopus stifado—and I think the chef at Agora probably made it up on a whim. If so, brilliant. The sweetness brought to the seafood by the allspice and tomato created a marine gravy so perfect I could have forgotten about the octopus itself, which was of course perfectly tender and delicious.
Nikos composes beautiful salads, often adding a capricious few bites of hot pepper to keep diners on their toes (and to keep up their thirst), and he keeps a nice selection of Greek cheeses on hand, including Cretan Graviera and the haloumi of Cyprus, which arrives just off the grill with an attendant lemon.
Atop all these beautiful meze, one dish stood out. One afternoon, the chef emerged from the kitchen with a beautifully roasted cut of meat in a huge chafing dish. I leaped from my bar stool to get a closer look. He had slathered a quarter pork belly with garlic and herbs and then slow roasted it, rendering almost all the fat and leaving it impossibly tender. The Greeks call this “pancetta” (which the Italians call the same cut when it is cured) and too often it is grilled into fatty submission. Nikos saw me drooling and rewarded my enthusiasm with two massive slices, which barely fit on my plate. He sprinkled them with oregano and cracked red pepper and slid them my way along with a lemon he’d whacked in half.
I am only slightly embarrassed that I finished the entire plate, even though I’d already eaten an embarrassing amount of food. By that point, a table of businessmen at the end of the bar began singing a song by Nikos Papazoglou, one of Thessaloniki’s great songwriters, and within moments almost all the other very well-fed diners along the bar joined in. Nikos just smiled, turning back to the saffron risotto he was preparing, yet another dish he’d use to cajole us into staying for another round.
More Places to Try
Here are a few other places worth traveling for. All are sure to satisfy your mid-day hunger.
Athens, Greece. Di Porta
Located on the corner of Theatrou and Sokratous Streets at one far end of the Athens central vegetable and fish market, the seedy “Di Porta” has no sign. Locals just know where it is. Look around at the intersection and you’ll find a mysterious set of stairs leading down into a cool basement where you are served whatever they are cooking that day, along with tin carafes of ice cold retsina. Don’t expect to find a written menu. Your bill will be scribbled right on the table when you are done.
Athens, Mezedopolio I Kali Zoi
12 Thiseiou Street.
Tel: (011 30) 210 321 6733
Tucked behind a green space in the busy Thiseiou strip of restaurants and cafes, “I Kali Zoi” (i.e. “The Good Life”) has an excellent selections of mezedes. Especially good are their zucchini croquettes, fried eggplant, and keftedakia (meatballs seasoned with garlic and mint). They pour both raki and tsipouro. Best of all, by mid-afternoon (and again late at night), they have live rembetika music and a sometimes boisterous crowd gathers there to sing along with the musicians.
Offer: 0520275098 Plaka Beach, Naxos: Ta Tria Aderfia (“Three Brothers”)
Tel: (011 30) 22850 42777
This excellent seafood restaurant on Plaka Beach is the perfect place to break up your day at the sea. Ask to go into the kitchen to see the fish, all of which is fresh off the boat. They boast a great selection of salads, appetizers, and wines. The owner is a potato farmer and when you taste his potatoes you’ll find out why the potatoes of Naxos are some of the best on the planet.
Panormo, Crete: Psarotaverna Agyra
Tel: (011 30) 28340 51022
If you are driving along the northern coast of Crete between Rethymnon and Chania, stop for a leisurely lunch beside the calm cove of Panormo. Wonderful melitzanasalata (eggplant spread), and very fresh seafood. Ask for Costas. His raki is outstanding.
Ageliana (Rethymnon), Crete: Dalabelos Estate
Tel: (011 30) 283 402 2155
Dalabelos is the most progressive agritourism gig on all of Crete. Call in advance to arrange to have lunch, but be forewarned: you’ll probably end up wishing you could stay for a week (they rent beautiful cottages with views of olive groves, vineyards and the Mediterranean on the horizon). The dishes they serve are perfectly Cretan and most of it comes from their own orchards, gardens, and flocks (they raise their own lamb, goat, and rabbit). Dalabelos pours excellent raki, but be sure to try their locally-sourced organic wines. If you are lucky, the owners (Vassilis and Yiorgos Petrodaskalakis) will break out their instruments—including lute, mandolin, and bouzouki—and fill the valley with music.
Alyki, Thasos: Restaurant Archodissa
Tel: (011 30) 259 303 1552
If you have a chance to dip into my book, Honey, Olives, Octopus, you’ll know my feelings about Archodissa, where the Kouzis family offers beautiful food in a beautiful setting. Their balcony overlooks three pristine lagoons, an archeological site, and a Roman marble quarry. The food is almost exclusively local: Stamatis Kouzis brings in fresh fish every day from his caique, the Evanthoula; they make their own olive oil and wine; and they raise chicken, sheep and goats; and they have a wood oven in which they make their own bread as well as a variety of simple, traditional dishes. Their revithia (chickpeas cooked with onions and rosemary) and gigantes (giant white beans) and slow-roasted lamb shanks are especially good. There’s always something interesting and hilarious happening in the afternoon at Archodissa, thanks to the excellent tsipouro the family makes, and thanks to the indefatigable charisma of Tasos Kouzis. One mesimeriano there will likely change your life.