jump to navigation

In rustic Greek Dishes, a fresh approach to Ancient Flavors January 6, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Taste World.

Ask New Yorkers to name a classic Greek dish, and many would say moussaka, gooey layers of eggplant, ground meat and comfort. But a new breed of Greek restaurants here also serves dishes like rabbit phyllo, grilled branzino with artichoke confit and dandelion greens, and Cretan honey-braised lamb shank with yogurt pasta.

Trend-setting chefs like Michael Psilakis at Onera, Christos Valtzoglou at Pylos and Michael Symon at Parea, to name a few, are giving Greek food new vibrancy. Thirty-four Greek restaurants are listed in the latest Zagat guide, 18 of them newcomers since 2000. So I wondered, whether I would encounter inventiveness at restaurants there, too.

As soon as a deconstructed version of a tomato stuffed with rice was placed before me at 48 Restaurant in Athens, I knew I need not have worried. The rice had been typically seasoned with tomato, cinnamon, pine nuts and currants but was shaped like ovals of sushi. Slabs of slow-roasted tomato topped them. That the chef, Christoforos Peskias, has Ferran Adriΰ as a mentor did not surprise me one bit.

As I traveled outside the big cities, I continued to be delighted by the fresh and new. In fact, as long as I stayed away from tourist places, I was in for an adventure.

But some of the most unusual yet simple and delicious food I found was in Rhodes, the large island in the Aegean’s Dodecannese group of islands. This food was not obviously modern, but based on a sense of place and on the traditions and ingredients of the island. It’s a rustic cuisine that New York restaurants have yet to discover.

I came home with recipes I could not wait to try. Most were from Mavrikos, a 70-year-old family restaurant in Lindos, a town in the southwestern corner of Rhodes known for its beaches and a steep acropolis reached by stairs or donkey. When Lindos was a jet-setting destination, before islands like Mykonos and Patmos were on the social radar screen, Mavrikos had a star-studded clientele. Nelson Rockefeller, members of Pink Floyd and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stopped by, said Michalis Mavrikos, who runs the restaurant.

Most of the bold-face names have moved on, but Mr. Mavrikos and his brother, Dimitri, the chef, are maintaining the family’s culinary traditions in the whitewashed dining room. Every evening, their father, Vassilis, 85, sits in one corner, near the small open kitchen, and casts a critical eye over everything.

For our party of six, Dimitri Mavrikos prepared a tasting menu of about 20 dishes. Tackling the recipes for some of them when I got home, I was happy to discover that even the most exotic-tasting dishes called for ingredients that are sold in American health food and Greek specialty stores, and also online.

Gigantes, as huge, succulent butter beans are called, were simmered in a dark, musky sauce seasoned with carob. “We can gather the carob pods from trees all around,” Michalis Mavrikos said.

Fresh local red shrimp were peeled and pounded, raw, into a paste and seasoned with onion, garlic and orange, for a rich alternative to taramosalata. It’s a dish I can try now, since fresh Maine shrimp are in season.

Freshly caught tuna loin was cured with sugar, salt and herbs, a little like gravlax, then sliced thin and served with pickled fennel. Gar, a long, skinny fish, was cooked and served in thick grape syrup, like saba, the Italian grape must. Poached skate was seasoned with herbs and pine nuts and formed into a timbale.

Meltingly tender beef had been slow-cooked in a casserole with cracked wheat and seasoned with bergamot, an aromatic citrus fruit that grows on the island and is best known as the flavoring for Earl Grey tea.

“You are probably thinking that some of these dishes, especially with the cracked wheat and exotic spices, came from Turkey,” Michalis Mavrikos said. “I assure you they do not.”

The seasonings for the tuna included fenugreek, a slightly pungent, grassy herb with seeds that can have a celery flavor. Although American cooks may associate it with Indian cooking, it grows wild on Rhodes, as does cumin, another seasoning used in some of the dishes.

If there is any non-Greek influence in the food at Mavrikos, it is likely to be French or Italian. When the Turks controlled Rhodes, the Mavrikos brothers’ paternal grandfather moved to Marseilles, where he owned a bistro. When Italy took over Rhodes in 1912 he returned, married an Italian woman and opened the restaurant in 1933. His son, Vassilis, studied cooking in Athens before returning to cook in the family restaurant.

Dimitri Mavrikos said the cooking of his father and grandparents, along with the local traditions, are his most compelling influences.

“When I plan my menus I first try to find local things, vegetables from the villages, fish from nearby,” he said. “But local fresh fish are not as plentiful as they once were and it’s getting harder to find them.” The chef travels, often to London, when the restaurant is closed in winter. “I’m always a little sad when I’m abroad,” he said. “I often can’t find real Greek food and rarely are there any Greek wines.”

Perhaps he should plan a trip to New York, where he’ll find Greek wines and respectable and inventive Greek food as well.

%d bloggers like this: