Déjà Vu: Fine cuisine and wine in Athens

With Thanasis Vassilenas

Vassilenas Restaurant

7 October 2017

By Panos Kakaviatos for Wine-Chronicles

You know you are in a fine Greek restaurant when the Taramosalata rivals – Heaven Forbid – your Greek mother’s prized recipe.

At Vassilenas Restaurant in Athens, I savored just such a smooth texture, purity of salty roe, accentuated by seamlessly blended lemon. Very thin pita slices maximized the taste bud contact of the Taramosalata, much like the finest crystal wine glass enables the greatest possible palate feel for the wine.

Taramosalata that rivals mom’s

It reminded me vaguely of another wonderful Taramosalata experience that I had enjoyed a few years back, with Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, in Piraeus.

Back then, Konstantinos had organized a tremendously useful blind tasting of many Greek white and red wines: a crash course, if you will, which I will never forget as an exceptional educational experience. We then went to a taverna restaurant in Piraeus called 1920, where the food was so savory and delicious that I have always told people to go there, when in Athens/Piraeus.

Flash forward to this year. Dimitra Arida, communications manager for Vassilenas Restaurant – which recently moved from Piraeus to Athens – invited me to dinner in late September.

Dimitra Arida, communications manager for Vassilenas Restaurant, showing off older times!

Over dinner, Dimitra explained how the establishment had enjoyed a great reputation as a high-end Greek taverna since the early 20th century – drawing in celebrity guests from Winston Churchill to Maria Callas. The reputation was built primarily on the quality of the seafood and fish, but also on the general vision of the Vassilenas family to only use the freshest of ingredients.

Current owner and third generation of the family, Thanasis Vassilenas, recently hired chef Manolis Garnelis, Dimitra explained, for the move to Athens: Manolis had cooked at well-known restaurants such as Aleria and at the Michelin-starred Varoulko, where he stayed for four years. His deep knowledge of fish and seafood earned him a rightful place as chef in the Vassilenas kitchen, since the restaurant moved to Athens in December last year.

With Thanasis Vassilenas

With Thanasis Vassilenas

As we spoke about the history and the food, I focused on changes, including the design of the new space in Athens, which exudes both cozy and modern chic. The same talented team that had designed Athens’ famous Benaki Museum converted what was once a tavern ambiance in Piraeus to the more modern look today. The idea, explained Dimitra, was to transform the origins of the restaurant, which dated back to 1920 (hint, hint) as a hearty taverna, to a reflection of the 1970s style Hilton quarter in Athens, which is enjoying a kind of culinary revival these days.

The new restaurant on Vrasida 13 in Athens, interior at left, is a stone’s throw away from the verdant Madrid Park and its interior indeed echoes the southeastern facade of the Hilton – a landmark hotel bearing the signature geometric designs of acclaimed Greek modern artist Yiannis Moralis etched in white marble: photo at right.

This proximity to the Hilton inspired architects Maria Kokkinou and Andreas Kourkoulas to mirror Moralis’ aesthetic style. For wine lovers, vertically hung bottles along the ceiling subtly light the restaurant and send the message that not only is this two layered space sleeker than a tavern, but it includes over 150 wine references: proudly on display near the entrance behind a glass wall.

As the food arrived, I started thinking about the 1920 date and asked Dimitra if she had eaten there. She looked surprised: “But that was the taverna that belonged to the Vassilenas family, that is now this new restaurant location.”

Ah ha! A bit of laughter ensued as we enjoyed an excellent meal, including that special Taramosalata that I had raved about a few years ago.

Although “1920” appeared on the sign of the restaurant in Piraeus, it was really Vassilenas 1920. The space used in Piraeus remains in the family, but no plans are yet finalized for what to do in the old location.

How was the food and wine? Very good.

First off, kudos to sommelier Maria Delitsikou, who has much experience in the restaurant trade – and it showed over dinner. Her deft pairings worked well with each choice that I made, from the appetizers to the main course.

Play by play

The aforementioned Taramosalata was terrific, but so was the Spanakopita. I was at first a little weary when I saw it, looking as a modern spin on an age-old favorite. Too often, new age transformations of old favorites make you long for the latter, but not so here.

Old …

… and new

The extra creamy feta seemed more like an emulsion over a creamy coulis like texture of the spinach (very different from a traditional Spanakopita). The filo on top provided needed crunchy balance. Vivid flavors reflected quality ingredients. Different from the greasier, pleasingly rustic street food version, which I had purchased earlier that day for two euros? You betcha, but they recall one another!

The wine – lemony in expression with herbal tones, and crisp yet smooth – proved a good match to both appetizers. It was an organic Assyrtiko 2016 vintage by KlimaKlima, bottled by Tsantalis in Halkidiki.

We stayed with the same wine for a rather hearty fish soup, which managed to recall the classic egg and lemon Greek soup albeit without the egg. It was creamy, yet quite zingy too, exuding an almost Margarita cocktail aspect. Hearty slices of carrots and onions, olive oil and tender chunks of fresh grouper balanced the salty lemon-lime cocktail freshness to yield both a homey and refined soup.

Then came the grilled octopus. Being fresh, it rivaled a great octopus experience enjoyed along the sea at a top taverna in Santorini last year. But this was charcoal grilled – and veritably smoky in aspect. The chewy texture of the octopus was balanced by a bed of chick peas that had been steamed in a pot, so as to maintain a certain crispy freshness. Florina red pepper lent a certain sweetness that complimented the smoky, charred flavors: a most successful appetizer that could easily be a main course.

The wine? It was the first time that I tried the nuanced Armi Thrapsathiri 2016 vintage from Crete, that had more body than the preceding wine – much needed to match the texture of the octopus and the charcoaled flavors.  “Armi” is the word in Crete to define the top of a mountainside. The vineyard called “Armi” indeed faces east, at an altitude of 500 meters, to get needed freshness so that the Thrapsathiri variety can express well its aromas and refined taste.

Just amazing!

The main course – a perfectly grilled sea bass, with its tasty scale – actually looked like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Some upscale restaurants make food presentations so clean as to be almost clinical. Here a happy if glaring opposite: roasted beetroot puree and olive oil, scattered around the fish like expressionist drip painting.

Sea bass à la Jackson Pollock

It was initially a bit surprising: My first bite had too much beetroot, and I was thinking: “This could be strange.” So I then tried the bass on its own: Oh my goodness, there is nothing like fresh sea bass, grilled. But another stab at the beetroot combination worked very well, as proportionate blending was key. The pronounced flavor of the beet, in a creamy format complemented the salty, tender fish.

And the wine? Well, this one was more familiar, but very good, too: The Skouras Armyra 2016 blends 95% Chardonnay with 5% Malagousia from Peloponnese. A smooth delivery as the Chardonnay predictably dominates, with a somewhat thick texture, but not a California caricature. Smooth and tasty, as one would expect from such a quality minded producer. It balanced the tender bass and stood up to the pronounced beet flavors.

If ever in Athens, make a reservation for this most excellent restaurant!

And thanks again to Dimitra and, again, to Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, who introduced me to the restaurant in the first place, when it was in Piraeus.

Notable events 

Already in its short time at its new location, the restaurant has drummed up attention with special winemaker dinner tastings, featuring top Greek wine pairings with the excellent cuisine, guided by the winemakers.

This past June, Vassilenas Restaurant took part in the Athens edition of the International Refugee Food Festival, having hosted chef Hassan Hassan from Somalia, who worked with head chef Mano Garneli to create what they called a “dance of parallel gastronomy” for two nights: Somali and Greek food combinations.

 

Run under the auspices of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the Refugee Food Festival was inaugurated in Paris in 2016, and has expanded this year to 13 European cities to mark World Refugee Day.

 

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