Eating copiously in Athens


Dinos, short for Constantine, Stergides and Panos Deligiannis are the Little and Large of wine and food in Greece today. For any reader who is unaware of any of these four characters, let me explain a little. 

Syd Little and Ed Large were, as their names suggest, an unlikely comic duo on British television in the 1970s comprising one small fellow and one considerably larger who, I remember vividly, were favourites of my late grandfather. Dinos and Panos share the same physical attributes, as I trust my photo of them having lunch at Cookoovaya restaurant in central Athens makes clear. 

Dinos met Panos over 20 years ago and is extremely urbane and cosmopolitan. His wife is French (he first met Jancis at the annual Angers wine fair many years ago); he rides a Harley Davidson; he has a deep love of America, where his two older daughters currently live; and on his left forearm he sports a large tattoo of an American eagle next to one of the American flag.

Quite how many tattoos it would take to cover one of Panos’s arms is anybody’s guess, but I reckon quite a few. He is very large but, like so many men of similar size, he retains his boyish good looks. The subject of his weight did come up once during our highly enjoyable two-day stint in Athens last week. Panos mentioned that he had tried a diet for a while. It involved adding the ritual of breakfast, skipped by most Greeks, to his usual generous intake of lunch and dinner. He lost no weight but retained the breakfast habit.

United by a love of good food and wine, Dinos and Panos remained friends despite going their separate professional ways, the former becoming an important wine communicator and organiser of wine events in Greece, the latter sticking to food and currently editing his country’s prestigious FNL restaurant guide. A year ago they reunited professionally to found the first Fine Red Wines festival that Julia reported on in Greeks in Athens.

This year Jancis was not dogged by pneumonia and we were able to go. She will report on her tastings in due course. But the event proved even more successful the second time with an even larger number of wine lovers happy to pay the €38 entry price (which included €30 worth of vouchers for tastes of the wines being poured, although many were offered free of charge). Next year’s event should be even better.

This combination of a good wine organiser alongside a colleague who is so obviously keen on his stomach led to our enjoyment of several good meals: our first dinner at Vezené; a long, complicated lunch at Hytra; the gala dinner for 110, at which 140 bottles of wine were apparently enjoyed; and our final lunch at Cookoovaya, one of the few restaurants in this absorbing city that is open for lunch. I intend to write here about the last two meals.

To give the menu, and the wines, a sense of piquancy and perhaps also to show off the growing improvements in Greek cooking and red winemaking, the combined sensibilities of Dinos and Panos came up with an original idea. They would pair Greek and French wines and ask the executive chef of the Tudor Hall restaurant on the seventh floor of the King George Hotel to create a menu that simultaneously paired a variation of dishes cooked in a French and Greek style.

Details of all the wines tasted will appear in Jancis’s tasting notes but the evening got off to a great start with apparently unlimited quantities of Veuve Clicquot 2002 that also went very well with our first course of a plate of gravad lax alongside several slices of raw sea bass. There then followed pairings of a Greek and French wine alongside two meat courses, a chicken coq au vin and a Greek alternative, followed by several slices of chateaubriand cooked in the style of the two different countries. This dish was followed by three French cheeses and, finally, a Greek dessert. It was a process that turned what could have been a rather tedious event into something that proved to be fun.

We met Dinos and Panos again for lunch at Cookoovaya close to the Hilton at 2 pm, late for anglo-saxon stomachs but early for Greek ones with many Greeks arriving for lunch closer to 3 pm.

This restaurant, which opened just over a year ago, is unusual in several respects. Firstly it is run by a combination of five different chefs, identical twins Spyros and Vangelis Liakos, Pericles Koskinas, Nikos Karathanos and Manos Zournatzis, plus an executive chef, all of whom came from respected kitchens. Two of them are partners in Base Grill while another, Pericles Koskinas, is highly regarded for his knowledge of, and use of, Greek herbs. When Karathanos approached our table, having just arrived and having swiftly changed into his chef’s whites, he was able to claim, ‘Whatever you enjoyed, I’ve just cooked, whatever you didn’t, it was one of the others!’

Secondly, it comes as a shock to see smoking in public still tolerated. The dining room that stretches across a whole block with windows on either side is modern and very well equipped with an open kitchen running the entire length. It boasts a non-smoking and a smoking section with nothing to prevent the smoke drifting from one side to the other. It was professionally interesting to watch the waiting staff walking around with their collection of empty ashtrays and just as interesting to spot a couple of the chefs who, rather than smoke inside, went outside to do so. Finally, there is the thumping music, a constant in every single Athenian restaurant we visited.

We started with an excellent Greek salad, the tomatoes peeled but the skin still on the cucumbers topped with feta; a modern interpretation of an Athenian salad that incorporates potatoes and fish; deep-fried tuna balls; and an open pie topped with minced lamb and egg. We moved on to pieces of bone marrow cut down the middle; a rooster cooked in salt and served on a bed of pasta, tomatoes and mizithra cheese, a young ewe’s milk cheese; slow-cooked veal cheeks; and chortopita, a pie filled with wild greens and herbs.

Desserts included the bougatsa, sweet filo pastry with plenty of sweet vanilla cream and cinnamon ice cream alongside, as seen in the foreground of the picture of Dinos and Panos. With Panos around, there is never any risk of under-ordering.

Cookoovaya  2A Chatzigianni Mexi Street, 11528 Athens; tel +30 210 723 5005. Open daily 13.00-01.00.