Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
I know: I’ve been a victim of it. Athenian after Athenian has tugged me out to this or that sleekly designed room with boldly geometric plates upon which intricately stacked food teeters. And I have wondered where the pleasures of grilled octopus might be hiding, and what had happened to the simplicity at the heart of Greece’s best cooking, which needn’t suffer from any inferiority complex at all.
So on a recent trip to Athens I set my own narrow parameters, my own traditional terms. I would eat nothing that didn’t have easily discernible Greek roots. I would go nowhere that belonged to the Cosmopolitan Hodgepodge school of precious international cooking. Rather than chasing the new, I would revel in the old; the longer the restaurants had been around, the better. They had stood the test of time.
My approach was relatively inexpensive and seemed fitting for a moment of economic retrenchment in a blessed, cursed, bailed-out country. I put comfort ahead of dazzle. And it led to some excellent eating.
I remember the moment I fell in love with the restaurant Margaro. Five minutes after sitting down at a barely set table with a flimsy paper covering, I looked up to see a wrinkly, square-shaped old woman lifting a whole red mullet, about seven inches long, to her lips and eating it as if it were an ear of corn. That’s my kind of gusto.
At Margaro you get mullet, because that’s what everyone does and that’s nearly all there is. A shiny menu attached to our table by a rope — as if someone might steal it! — mentioned a few other fish, but a server told my companion and me that he could and would summarize the night’s options himself. We could have mullet, shrimp or langoustine. That was it.
We asked for a platter that included everything, and inquired about a Greek salad, for pacing and roughage. They had one, with a brick of salty feta and dark-hued olive oil, and it pleased without wowing us.
But the shrimp, langoustine and especially mullet were fantastic. Pretty much all that happens to them on their journey from larder to table is that they are dusted with flour and salt and thoroughly dunked in very hot oil. They emerge from it crunchy, like piscine French fries. They’re served whole, and while we used our fingers for bits of the crustaceans, we confined ourselves to utensils for the mullet, each one good for maybe six bites. We tore through nearly a dozen of them.
Afterward we ate halvah, a tahini-flavored delicacy that, at Margaro, has the consistency and taste of cookie dough. It was wonderful — and the lone dessert available.
There’s a crude, irresistible poetry to how pared down this taverna is. It is located on a random street in the port city of Piraeus, which is to Athens somewhat as Brooklyn is to Manhattan: a component of the bigger metropolis, stripped of some of the glitz and quickly reached by subway. Those flimsy table coverings are held in place by what look like steroidal paper clips. The white wine — only one generic kind — is served in metal pitchers. And there’s nothing that really qualifies as décor on the vast, covered front porch, which is where the crowd, mostly older folk, eats.
With exuberance they chatter and chew as a breeze blows toward the kitchen and platter after platter of red mullet is carried out of it. That’s nearly the whole of the spectacle, and it’s more than enough.
Margaro, Hatzikyriakou 126, Piraeus; (30-210) 4514226. Dinner for two, with wine, is about 45 euros or about $58 at $1.31 to the euro.
Just as no one who goes to Margaro misses the mullet, no one who visits Doris skips the loukoumades, which are technically doughnuts, but so superior to others that being lumped in with them is a hideous injustice. They defy culinary gravity in their impossibly airy crispness — or maybe it’s a shockingly crispy airiness. Either way they’re a textural miracle, and a taste revelation.
To get to Doris you burrow into a crammed central Athens neighborhood of narrow, slanting streets. The atmosphere is both functional and festive: a cafe of sorts up front, a big dining room behind it, a garden to the side, high ceilings, yellow and pink walls. The menu is scrawled in Greek on an enormous chalkboard, but you don’t have to understand it because most of the food is displayed in big pans and dishes — a lineup of the hoariest classics, which might also be called clichés. Moussaka, sagonaki, stuffed tomatoes: all of it is here.
And most of it is well prepared. I recommend skipping the Greek pasta dishes (dry) but making sure to have the grilled green peppers filled with cheese, which are superb. Get a bunch of stuff and pass it around. That’s what the Greek regulars here do.
Know that it’s not open after 6:30 p.m. and is most popular at lunchtime, with business people, though loukoumades-minded pilgrims keep it busy from its opening at 8 in the morning to close. The doughnuts — some roundish, some more like squiggles — come on a platter, with some powdered sugar, a bit more cinnamon and a drizzle of honey, which pools slowly and thickly beneath them. Use it for dipping.
And take note of the servers, mesmerizing in their blunt efficiency and mismatched miens. There was a burly, scowling man; there was a thin, pert, perpetually smiling woman. As best I could ascertain from a conversation with them on the way out, they are actually distantly related, as are many of the rest of the staff. Doris has reputedly been around for over a century, which is a lot of time for a family tree to branch out far and wide.
Doris, Praxitelous 30, Athens; (30-210) 3232671. Lunch for two, without wine, is 40 euros.
At Karavitis, a rough-hewn rebel in a well-heeled part of central Athens, I got the thickest and most garlicky tzatziki I’d ever encountered, along with an earful about how little beyond garlic, yogurt, cucumber and olive oil should go into it.
One of my tablemates, an Athenian, recalled being in America and watching a TV cook make what was billed as tzatziki. The cook used avocado. “My hair started to curl,” said my dining companion, cringing.
Then the cook put in red pepper. “I wanted to call the network,” she said.
Finally, butter was added: “At that point I got sick.”
My tablemate, in short, is an easily aggrieved classicist, and Karavitis passes muster with her. It’s renowned for its grilled meats — lamb, pork and beef — which in many cases, depending on the day and the available cuts, you order and pay for by the kilogram for family-style eating.
We got roughly a kilo and a half of lamb for the four of us, which meant a heap of tiny chops. As is often true in lamb-worshiping countries like Greece, the meat was muskier, gamier than in America, and that’s for the good. It came with a subtle char on the outside.
With it we got that tzatziki and fried potatoes and, best of all, the restaurant’s beloved fried meatballs, made with beef, bread crumbs, onion, mint, garlic and oregano. They’re just small enough to pop whole into your mouth, and just addictive enough to make you quickly lose count of how often you’ve done this.
We finished this meal, as we did at Margaro, with halvah, though here it had less flavor and the texture of flan. Our additional dessert, which mingled tangy yogurt with candied quince, was the winner.
Karavitis is a particular experience. It seems to attract groups of 8, 10, even 12, who gather at long tables. A guitar player wanders around, strumming. Along one wall are gigantic old wooden wine barrels.
Speaking of wine, it is served in what are essentially jugs, and is elemental, unremarkable stuff, meant primarily to ease the consumption of, and wash down, all the hearty food.
Karavitis, Arktinou 35, Athens; (30-210) 7215155. Dinner for two, with wine, is 55 euros.
For a real wine list, a more refined setting and more polished service, you can’t do much better than Vassilenas, in Piraeus, which has been around for more than 50 years and was updated handsomely, but not showily, about five years ago. Lustrous dark wood tables sit on light wood floors; the walls are a soothing, elegant putty color. And the food, a combination of straightforward and reinterpreted standards, comes on whimsically shaped plates.
But fear not: you’re still on recognizably traditional Greek turf, and the kitchen demonstrates as much concern for impeccable ingredients as for culinary sleight of hand. The single best dish I had there was grilled squid, sliced nearly as thin as a carpaccio but otherwise left alone.
Vassilenas is a magnet for the food-obsessed, and the Athenian who introduced my companion and me to it looked around the room, certain of spotting someone who would illustrate this fact. Sure enough he did, pointing out a man he said was a star of Greece’s analogue to “Top Chef.”
We ordered a 2008 bottle of Greek white made from the distinctive roditis grape, favored by winemakers in this country. The little bit of age gave it a welcome depth. And we swooned over the restaurant’s mousselike version of taramosalata, the whipped spread of fish roe, which had an audaciously salty edge. Similarly transporting were an earthy mash of fava beans and chickpeas and an aptly fatty lamb shank of impressive heft. Vassilenas isn’t too buttoned up to throw a big hunk of meat at you.
Vassilenas, Aitolikou 72, Piraeus; (30-210) 4612457; vassilenas.gr. Dinner for two, with wine, is 90 euros.
The balance of rustic and refined notes at Vlassis reminds me of the fetching equilibrium Vassilenas achieves. The understated décor is also vaguely contemporary, and Vlassis has a similarly lulling effect. Although it is in a busy part of Athens, it is protected behind a wall of shrubbery that gives it a cloistered feel.
On the night we went, there were more than a dozen small plates to choose from, and slightly fewer entrees. Most of the starters, which the Greeks call mezedes, are brought to the table on an enormous tray for visual inspection. There was a divine, lemony stuffed cabbage with béchamel; a kind of chopped fried zucchini, not breaded, that had the opulent feel of sautéed mushrooms; a pool of luscious sheep’s milk yogurt with a tomato sauce like a thin, fiery ketchup in the center; and something our served called “spicy cheese,” which was like a creamy feta flecked with hot cooked green peppers, and was out of this world.
We gorged so happily on these mezedes that we couldn’t summon much enthusiasm for our entrees, which warranted at least a bit of it. A simply grilled red snapper had tender flesh; baked chicken fulfilled its prosaic obligations.
Come dessert Vlassis looked beyond the national borders, serving us a panna cotta reminiscent of Italy and a cheesecake evocative of nowhere and everywhere. I could excuse the digression. It was the last act of our final meal, and we’d had our contented fill of Greece.
Vlassis, Maiandrou 15, Athens; (30-210) 7256335. Dinner for two, with wine, is 85 euros.