36 hours of fantastic food and bev in Athens
I am woefully behind on blog posts owing to the end of the semester at Davidson and the ensuing whirlwind travel schedule. I know both of you are heartbroken. I have one more important post this year to set us up for the release of the 2021 Big Drunk Gay Awards tomorrow, which I know y'all are eagerly anticipating.
Greece is one of the great food destinations of the world. Amazing Mediterranean produce, killer seafood, gorgeous wines, and a vast and deep tradition of good eating make Greece a bucket list destination for any serious lover of food. On this trip, I was just in Athens for 36 hours, but committed myself, as usual, to finding the best way to eat my way through a city in just a day.
No first visit to Athens is complete without a hike up to the Acropolis to see the remaining artifacts of ancient Greek culture, including the iconic Parthenon. That's how I started my day, and though I injured my ankle on the way up, every stinging step was worth the history and the views.
But for exercise, you need fuel, so I dropped in to a cool storefront in the bustling Monastiraki neighborhood for some lukumádes, Greece's answer to donuts. These balls of dough are traditionally deep fried and served with honey, cinnamon, and sugar. The shop, bearing just the name of the donuts themselves, serves these tasty morsels with all manner of different sauces, but the standard preparation and a cup of coffee made a perfect breakfast to fuel my walk through Plaka and the ensuing Acropolis hike.
Post-Parthenon, it was time to make my way down to the Aegean waterfront to sample some spectacular Greek seafood at Michelin-starred Varoulko, perched over a southeast-facing harbor on the sea. Killer seafood was a primary goal during my Athenian visit, and all signs pointed toward the super-elegant Varoulko being the place to go. I was sat at a table on the third floor by the window and immediately ordered a glass of assyrtiko, one of my favorite white wine varietals that grows on islands like Santorini, imparting it with a saline-like, complex minerality that I can't get enough of. The sommelier of course knew much more about assyrtiko than I did, and over the course of the meal poured me three very different expressions of the grape from their by-the-bottle list, a very nice touch.
I wasn't too terribly hungry and anticipated eating dinner at some point back in Plaka, so while I settled in with Greek olive oil and house-made bread (omg) and marinated olives, I perused the rather extensive seafood menu and settled on three appetizer portions. The server talked me out of the grilled octopus, which I severely regretted when I tasted the first dish, because the octopus carpaccio with smoked fava bean purée, while "fine," was pretty woefully disappointing for a quintessential Greek seafood ingredient at a restaurant of this caliber.
I didn't have to wait long for things to perk up, however––the next course was easily one of the best seafood dishes of the year. Red mullet is one of the smaller fish that are harvested for consumption in the Aegean, and the team at Varoulko assembled a gorgeous dish of marinated red mullet crudo with fiorina pepper, ouzo jelly, dried grapes, and bottarga, the cured, dried roe of the mullet. Brilliant.
The next course was fierce competition for the second. Grilled calamari is one of the more unappreciated seafood proteins out there, and this whole squid was beautifully seared and seasoned, dripping with smoky goodness, and served alongside little gem lettuces with mustard seed, a creamy fish roe sauce beneath, and ouzo jelly. One knockout course after another, and after a fourth glass of assyrtiko, I was ready to head back to Plaka and take a nap before heading off to sample some tipples at one of the best bars in the world.
A leisurely sunset stroll and subway ride back from Varoulko landed me back in the environs of my hotel north of the Acropolis, where after a nap I quickly found my way to The Clumsies, recently listed as the world’s third-best bar by the “Top 50” list. It’s a remarkable bar with a casual, chill, neighborhood feel the likes of which feels quintessentially Athenian––at once quaint, storied, slightly frenzied, and overwhelmingly friendly.
The Clumsies has a staid list of tried-and-true cocktails, the most famous of which is their Aegean Negroni, winner of TimeOut Magazine’s best cocktail in 2019. With a bespoke Old Tom gin turned bright blue, vermouth, Campari, fennel seeds, and a Cretan herb called Diktamus, it was brilliant blue like the sea, with a gorgeous, subtle bitterness. Never was a negroni so satisfyingly refreshing.
I ended up sampling a staggering six (!) cocktails at The Clumsies, but the favorite was called “Metamorphosis,” so good that I had a second. Talisker whisky was paired with Skinos Mastiha, some expression of corn, intensely aromatic bergamot, and a Greek peach brandy. Incredible drink, and one of the best I’ve ever sampled, though part of me can’t escape the thought that it also was my last drink after five that preceded and four glasses of assyrtiko.
Still very much lucid but rather gleeful, I ventured out into the crisp Athens evening hungry for some late night food and remembered that a team of Greece’s best young chefs, most famously responsible for the Athens restaurant Cookoovaya (which I would have sampled but for it being decidedly family-style), had opened a bespoke elevated souvlaki spot just steps from The Clumsies called Hoocut. The lamb souvlaki, a combination of an essential Greek protein and an even more classic Greek street food, was the suggestion of the server, and was spectacular, and for just six euro, it was one of the best causal meals of the year.
Not satisfied to end my night in Athens, I noted that there was a wine bar a block or two from my hotel that focuses on Greek wine produced in a natural style, which has been my jam of late. I was already feeling pretty happy but managed to sample three wines that were so good that I drunkenly whipped out the credit card to purchase two bottles of each of them, forgetting that I had to somehow cram them into my suitcase in the morning to get home. Whoops! I paid the price in the morning, cramming six bottles of wine into my suitcase with a hammering headache, but luckily got to enjoy them in the ensuing weeks in Charlotte.
Athens is a strange, rough-around-the-edges city with a palpable energy, obvious history, magnificent food and beverage, and warm hospitality. I am sad I only got a short 36 hours here, but will be sure to revisit when I finally make my way to the Greek isles. Until then, I am thrilled I had the opportunity to hit the highlights in one of Europe’s oldest cities.
The next post? The 2021 Big Drunk Gay Awards for a particularly full year of fantastic food and beverage. The competition is fierce for these completely meaningless awards that I’ll be stunned if six people read about. Will you be one of those lucky six? Check back in on New Year’s Eve!