There are no less than five Greek restaurants in the small town I live in, all of them with a virtually identical menu - taramasalata, hummus and other meze, grills and kebabs. One still offers weekly plate smashing sessions.
For many people who holiday in Greece the picture is not much different. In fact they may get offered even more anglicised food like moussaka and chips. It’s as if Italian food had stayed rooted in the era of spaghetti and meatballs and waiters with outsize peppergrinders.
To counteract this rather dated image the Greek government has invested heavily in a new campaign to put the focus on what they define as ‘Greek Mediterranean Gastronomy’. Called ‘Kerasma’ - a Greek word which means ‘treat’ but also evokes the idea of hospitality and the sharing of food - it seeks to draw attention to the wealth of high quality natural ingredients the country possesses. Earlier this year they held a landmark conference in Athens where a multi-national audience of movers and shakers was treated to series of seminars, tastings and dinners designed to showcase modern Greek cuisine and ingredients such as wine, cheese, olive oil and ouzo. They’ve even gone into the publishing business with a glossy new quarterly magazine, Greek Gourmet Traveler, edited by leading Greek food writer Diane Kochilas.
There are two distinct strands to this Greek food revival or, perhaps more aptly, renaissance as the kind of dishes that are being featured in top end Greek restaurants nowadays are nothing like those that have been seen before. Firstly there’s a rediscovery and reinvigoration of Greek home cooking. Typically this is promoted by chefs who have moved out of the country cooking for appreciative ex-pats nostaglic for the food of their childhood. This is the kind of food you find in restaurants such as London’s The Real Greek and New York’s Molyvos.
It certainly puts the focus on just how different Greece’s regional dishes are. A few years ago when I visited Santorini and Cephalonia in the space of a few days I ate totally different food. Cephalonia, like Corfu, has a strong Italian and English influence, the latter of which you find in the famous Cephalonian meat pie. Santorini has a much more classic island cuisine focussed around seafood and lighter dishes such as fava bean puree and tomato and mint fritters. Crete is the home of the classic ‘green pie’ (apparently richer in flavenoids than red wine). On the mainland nearer the Turkish border you’ll find more typically Eastern Mediterranean cuisine. All these influences weave in and out of city restaurants as chefs travel abroad or set up shop in island restaurants as many do during the summer months.
At the other end of the scale is the cutting edge modern Greek cuisine epitomised by Athens restaurants such as Yiannis Baxevanis’ Hytra and 48 The Restaurant whose chef Christoforos Peskias has worked with such iconic chefs as Ferran Adria, Charlie Trotter and Marc Meneau. Occasionally the foam fixation that afflicts all Ell Bulli graduates gets the better of him - his signature dish at the showpiece Kerasma event was deep fried calamari with Tsatziki foam - but in general his menu offers subtle, sophisticated and artful dishes such as a delicious salted tuna with ouzo jelly and hare stifado. Praised by Jancis Robinson as ‘the most exciting restaurant space I have ever eaten in’, 48 also scores highly for decor and wine service. On learning we were interested in wine the talented young sommelier Yiannis Kaimenakis produced a dazzling succession of obscure and fascinating bottles from his list of 500 bins.
Greek-born chefs are also pushing the boundaries overseas. In New York for example, where Greek food is all the rage, 13 Greek restaurants have opened in Manhattan alone since 2003. At Pylos which employs Diane Kochilas as a consultant you can find artichoke heart moussaka and pumpkin and sweet potato moussaka. Onera ticks off two trends at the same time - raw food and tapa-style sharing plates - by offering raw ‘meze’ such as scallops with yoghurt cucumber sauce, pickled fennel and anise leaves and tuna tartar with botarga, crispy caper and tuna garlic sauce.
Round the other side of the world at Peter Conistis’ Omega in Sydney where moussaka is given a different spin with aubergine, seared sea scallops and tarmasalata, tomato fritters resurface as twice cooked zucchini and three cheese souffle with roast tomato sauce while rabbit and black olive pie is served with a celeriac skordalia.
Undoubtedly this revolution in Greek cuisine has been helped by the growing popularity of its wines with adventurous drinkers, exploring the wealth of unfamiliar grape varieties and flavours which Greece has to offer and looking for equally original flavours with which to match them. Earlier this year I spend an hour at the London Wine Trade Fair tasting a range of Greek wines with mezedes from The Real Greek with co-owner Paloma Campbell. It threw up some spectacular matches which would have defeated many other wines - Bibliachora White (a blend of Sauvignon and Assyrtiko) with earthy ‘Gigantes’ beans and spinach with a sharp yoghurt sauce; another Assyrtiko (Thalassitis) with briney dolmades with scallops and lemony avgolemeno sauce and a Xinomavro from Rapsani, a powerful dry red paired with lamb chops with yoghurt cucumber and garlic. “Winemakers used to complain that they were revolutionising Greek wine while Greek restaurants weren’t keeping up with them” says Yiannis Kaimenakis of 48. “Now Greek restaurants are a great showcase for our wines.”
While Greek grape varieties are hardly household names there’s no reason why the food-friendly Assyrtiko shouldn’t become the next Albarino or the aromatic Moschofilero the new Gewurz. Or Greek food the new Spanish, for that matter. It ticks all the boxes - healthy, colourful, flavourful, adaptable to sharing, from a country where we all love to holiday. Expect that plate-smashing restaurant near you to get a makeover shortly.
For more about modern Greek food visit www.kerasma.com
Where to eat Modern Greek
48 The restaurant, Armatolon & Klefton 48, +30 210.64 11.082. www.48therestaurant.com
Hytra, Navarchou Apostoli 7, +30 210 331 6767
Varoulko, 80 Piraeus Str. (next to Hridanos hotel ) +30 (210) 5228 400
The Real Greek, 14-15 Hoxton Market, London N1 020 7739 8212 www.therealgreek.co.uk
In New York
Onera 222 West 79th Street, (212) 873 0200 www.oneranyc.com
Molyvos, 871 Seventh Avenue (212) 582 7500 www.molyvos.com
Parea, 36 E. 20th St., New York (212) 777 8448 and Lolita in Cleveland www.parea-ny.com
Pylos, 128 East 7th Street (212) 473.0220 www.pylosrestaurant.com
Omega, 161 King Street 02 9223 0242 www.omegarestaurant.com.au
A shorter version of this article appeared in the November issue of Decanter.