During my first dinner in Athens under a starry sky I was sitting next to an extremely attractive young woman who had grown up in Paris but had recently returned to Athens to be with the love of her life. "Which city did she prefer and why' I wanted to know, to which her immediate response was "Athens. Because you work hard during the week in both cities but here there are so many wonderful islands to escape to at the weekend."
The following morning I too was down at Piraeus to catch the hydrofoil to Aigina although my excursion was not entirely hedonistic. This stunning island, only 40 minutes away and fast becoming a commuter stop, is home to two of the most important ingredients in Greek cooking: extremely fresh fish and the most succulent pistachio nuts which begin and end so many Greek meals.
The explanation for the former is partly historical and partly a tribute to how this whole stretch of water has become so much less polluted over the past decade. The fish - sea bass, mackerel, bream, octopus, parrot fish, mullet and sardines - enjoy swimming in the cold, clean waters around the island and as a result Aigina has become the main supplier to Athens' top fish restaurants. While the city’s unmissable Central Market incorporates a large fish hall it includes many air-freighted imports, including I noticed prawns from Argentina - to eat the best Greek fish either follow my recommendations or my example and head for Aigina.
Once off the boat, with about 40 small fishing boats bobbing along on the other side of the jetty, turn right along the sea front and walk along for approximately 400 metres before crossing over where a couple of large fishing vessels are tied up, their boxes conspicuously empty and their crews half asleep. Immediately in front is a rather dark alleyway, not surprisingly covered in a light blue corrugated roof down which are 14 different fish stalls all of whose staff have a slightly different technique with their blue fly whisks that keep away their natural enemy but all of whom share the same professional goal - to sell the freshest fish caught that morning.
In fact although I have visited more than my fair share of fish markets I have never been anywhere where the distance from fishing boat to market to table is quite so short. It must be less than 50 metres from the boats through the market to the small restaurant at the end of the alleyway simply called Psaro Taverna, Fish Tavern. The place itself as simple and charming as so many tavernas but its proximity to the market allows the customer to take a more active role in their meal because here you can go up to any of the stalls, buy the fish you like the look of and return with it to the Taverna who will charge you a grilling fee as well as selling you a variety of their own cooked dishes.
We started off with a salad of tomatoes, onions and olives; steamed greens with garlic and olive oil, a grilled bream and sea bass before moving on to two particular local delicacies, parrot fish fried in olive oil and diced octopus (no longer battered on rocks to soften them up but turned in what looks like a large mixer to the same effect) and then grilled. And although the slightly battered looking grill needed replacing in my opinion because it add a too charred taste to the fish the skill with which they managed to stop the fish sticking to the grill was impressive, a result I subsequently learnt of adding sea salt as soon as the fish was placed on the grill and then the odd dribble of water.
Psaro Taverna has two other distinct charms. Firstly, it is ridiculously inexpensive, about 10/12 euros per person on top of the very fair prices for the fish .And secondly it so well located by a narrow thoroughfare that, as you watch the island's life go by, the feeling creeps on that missing the boat back to Athens may not be so disastrous. And as though to reinforce this point my two contacts, who had both separately chosen to leave Athens for Aigina, decided to take me to the Aiakeion cafe almost opposite the ferry. Here trays of those lusciously sweet and syrupy Greek desserts are lined up next to packets of the island's pistachio nuts for which it has acquired the right to a specially protected geographical name. At the last minute I decided to buy a jar of pistachios in honey that are so wonderful with yoghurt but I realised as I just made it on to the ferry that this was almost certainly a subconscious but unsuccessful attempt to miss the boat.
Had I stayed on Aigina I would have not met Kollias, whom many in Athens refer to as Mr Fish; eaten at 48, one of the most visually exciting new restaurants anywhere; or seen the new Milos restaurant which opened six months ago in the 100 million euro refurbished Hilton, sibling to the Milos restaurants in Montreal and New York.
Kollias is a genial, rotund 57 year old who has devoted the last 17 years of his life not just to serving the freshest fish of the Aegean but also to recreating many old recipes from the women on the islands that could have sadly disappeared without his intervention. Before that he worked as a civil servant devoting his weekends and holidays to fishing trips with his friends to discover just what was best and where. Then, as he put it 'when my children were old enough to look after themselves' he, and what can only assume to be, his long suffering wife turned their former house, about ten minutes from the main ferry terminal at Piraeus, into Psaro Taverna Kollias.
The restaurant still has a homely feel enhanced by various members of the family at Kollios's beck and call. The front rooms are quite dark, but presumably cosy in winter and above there is an airy terrace that would not look out of place on any island. In between is a small kitchen that will make any fish lover's heart beat fast indeed. While the main cooking range is dominated by a grill to the right is a large fridge/safe which Kollias opens with immense pride to reveal gleaming tsipura, sinagrida and fagri - the Greeks' most cherished fish; riki, small white tuna; ugly, bright red scorpion fish and many others citing on each occasion the islands around which they were caught.
But equalling exciting is a large open fridge to the left containing 30 odd fish meze that encompass the best of Greek culinary creativity: small rock fish cooked in rosemary and vinegar; small circles of aubergine topped with mussels and a sardine sauce; sardines, spilt lengthways, stuffed with spinach and served warm; grilled manouri cheese topped with anchovies and capers and tiny shrimps from Simi near Rhodes cooked for seconds and the Greek equivalent of samphire, now prevalent on British and French rocky coasts, boiled and then topped with lemon and olive oil. Kollias's desserts - a walnut pie, filo pastry stuffed with sweet Cretan cheese and their home made mandarin ice cream - are equally satisfying.
The only sadness came in a conversation with Kollias and Stratos, a fisherman from Lesvos now aged 32 who had worked the Aegean since starting at the age of eight on his father's boat, who had just delivered his catch of the day including some rare large yellow headed tsipura caught in the Saronic Gulf. When I asked what changes Stratos had seen his reply was sadly inevitable. "We are really seeing a big decline in the number of top quality fish and as a result it is getting much harder to make a living. We reckon we have to catch 6/8 kgs of the best fish a day to survive but now there is a saying amongst my colleagues which sums up the difficulties we are facing. They say that to catch this quantity of good fish you have to be clever enough to catch the birds that fly above the boat."
Visually it is a long way from Kollias's former home to to the gleaming new Milos restaurant but philosophically they are not that far apart. According to Costas Spiliades who has created this now trans-Atlantic restaurant empire, the Miilos leitmotif is’ not to be creative anything new but just to follow what our grandmothers cooked.'
Any grandmother would be quite overwhelmed however by the vast open kitchen by the entrance in front of which is an even more impressive array of the country's finest ingredients. Deep red tomatoes; Santorini's famous yellow beans; ribbed cucumbers from Crete, which, sliced thinly and toppped with sea salt, make a delicious cocktail nibble; beans of varying sizes and colours and yet more glistening fish. No London hotelier or restaurateur is doing anything near as strikingly impressive for British produce, sadly.
Our dinner was a tour of the Greek islands. Grilled anchovies stuffed with sage; smoked and sun dried sardines; a tomato salad with a crumbly white cheese from Naxos; small tomato cakes, enlivened with mint, from Santorini and slices of filo pastry stuffed with spinach, onions and pine nuts and the pungent herbs of Kythera. Our main course packed even stronger flavours: a wild goat from Crete cooked for three to four hours in a large earthenware dish with tomatoes, courgettes, and particularly flavoursome potatoes from Naxos and a lot of olive oil.
Milos Athens is less expensive than its New York counterpart (and there is a particularly good value ¤20.04 lunch here until after the Olympics along with a $20.04 lunch in Montreal and New York for the same period). But Spiliades’ triumphant return to his native country prompted one Athenian to explain somewhat ruefully 'that we Greeks only recognise our countrymen's potential when they have left Greece and been successful overseas'.
Theodore Margellos is another Athenian who prospered overseas, grain trading in Paris, Geneva and the Ukraine where he acquired an exceptional wine cellar and a passion for good food. All this merged nine months ago into 48 The Restaurant, perhaps the most exciting man made restaurant space I have ever eaten in.
Highly unprepossessing from the outside, the restaurant occupies space formerly used by an art gallery so the internal dining room has dramatic walls six metres high accentuated by exciting lighting by London’s Isometrix . But even more exciting , when the weather is good is to sit outside. The far wall has been turned into a waterfall which flows under a clear Perspex floor on which candle lit tables have been laid. The illusion of sitting on a boat in the centre of the city is compounded by a series of four sails which act as a vital sun screen.
Christoforos Peskias is the chef charged with producing equally dramatic food and he does so by taking traditional Greek dishes and transforming them for the twenty first century. Tomatoes are still stuffed with rice and pine nuts but then once they have absorbed all the flavours they are cut horizontally and served as tomato sushi: imam bayaldi, the aubergine starter is served with a feta ice cream to add vital acidity and spears of asparagus are wrapped in lightly grilled manouri cheese. An extraordinary wine list, at very reasonable wine prices adds a final attraction to 48 The Restaurant.
Athens’s restaurants are evolving increasingly becoming the conduits for the country’s exceptional produce and increasingly interesting wines. But its restaurateurs are happily not losing their sense of humour in the process. A shop by the Central Market which sells plastic signs for offices had one just for restaurants which read, “Only well fed customers are welcome.”
Where to eat:
Fish Tavern, Aigina
Kolllias, Kalokerinou & Dramas, Piraeus, 210.4629.620, www.kollias.gr
Milos, Athens Hilton, 210.7244.16
48 The Restaurant, Armatolon & Klefton 48, 210.6411.082. Dinner only Monday-Saturday
To Ouzadiko, Karneadou 25-29, 210.7295.484, a distinctive if slightly more traditional restaurant with an excellent range of ouzos
For traditional souvlaki, Thanassis and Savvas, opposite each other in Monastaraki.
For food shopping:
Mesogaia, the corner of Nikis and Kydathinaon, Plaka
Elixir Spices and Herbs; 41 Euripidou Street, 210.3215.141, www.elixir.com.gr
What not to miss;
parrot fish, sauteed in olive oil
small red mullet, grilled whole and drizzled with olive oil
anything involving aubergines, purple or white, particularly imam bayaldi,
Greek figs, at their best in August,
thin green beans, called gypsy beans or haricots de vigne, because they grow close to the vineyards, lightly cooked and served with olive oil, garlic and basil.