“I’m visiting Mykonos / Athens / Crete / Santorini in June. Where can I find a vegetarian restaurant, or one that serves healthy, organic cuisine?”
It never ceases to amaze me when I hear people ask this question as they plan a visit to Greece, be it Athens, the islands or other parts of the country.
The answer is easy. Everywhere.
Traditional Greek cuisine, believed by many to form the basis of the much-touted Mediterranean Diet, consists of a significant amount of fruit and vegetables, olive oil, moderate servings of cheese and yoghurt, pulses and grains, fish and minimal meat.
In recent years, we have seen a wave of new-generation Greek dining spots open in cities and towns around the world where the raw ingredients are good quality and the dishes imaginative. Think Mazi in London, Gazi in Melbourne and Kiki’s in NYC.
These establishments have replaced quite a number of the classic Greek tavernas founded by immigrants from the ‘50s and ‘60s onwards. At these laidback joints, copious amounts of grilled meats, fish and moussaka would be brought to the table and you may have even been offered a few plaster plates to smash.
In the case you’ve never visited or it’s been a while since your last trip to Greece, and you’re wondering, we don’t actually smash plates in Greece. It’s considered out-of-date at best, and crass at worst.
So, the arrival of these cool new eateries, launched mostly by enthusiastic young Greek chefs, is making a positive impact on the image of the country’s cuisine.
For a long time, among those who didn’t know any better, it was assumed that Greek fare is limited to stodgy moussaka, souvlaki and Greek salad.
The plain and simple truth is that, anywhere you go in Greece, you can find a taverna or restaurant where you can enjoy flavourful, healthy fare, with plenty of vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options.
It’s true that, like the “you don’t eat no meat?!” aunt in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, some taverna owners in Greece couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of vegetarianism, up until a few years ago.
This was surely a by-product of the post-war years when the country’s economy started to recover and people could afford to buy meat; but they went a little overboard.
Indeed, growing up in Australia, it was standard for all Greek families to have a separate freezer in the backyard or garage in which they would store meat. And lots of it.
As my generation grew up and were schooled in the risks of ingesting too much meat, we all started to cut out the bad cholesterol.
I assume that many of these freezers now serve as storage, or have long been sent for recycling.
In Greece, the new culinary kids on the block are taking the demands of potential patrons for organic, gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian cuisine just as seriously.
A case in point is the attractive, health-conscious restaurant nice n easy, which astute entrepreneur Dimitris Christoforidis and his business partner-chef Christos Athanasiadis opened in uptown Athens neighbourhood Kolonaki in 2008.
LA folk may know Christoforidis from the restaurant-club Sanctuary, a celebrity magnet near Beverley Hills, which he owned and operated for over 20 years.
With its focus on contemporary farm-to-fork Mediterranean fare with flair, nice n easy, named after the Frank Sinatra tune, has since branched out with a location in the northern Athens suburb of Kifissia and one on Mykonos.
We had visited the Kolonaki branch a few times – particularly for their organic burgers – so, when we headed to Mykonos last September for a long weekend getaway, we had to test out the windy isle outpost.
Christoforidis and Athanasiadis pride themselves on the organic offerings of their menus, which vary from restaurant to restaurant. In perusing the menu, diners can learn about the nutritional value and calorie count of each dish, as well as choose from a selection of gluten-free choices.
Athanasiadis sources fresh fish, seafood, meat, cheese and produce from Mykonos but also Naxos, Kalymnos and Crete, and buffalo meat from their farm on Lake Kerkini in Serres, northern Greece. Herbs and vegetables hail from their organic garden.
Practising their own take on fair trade, the pair buys directly from farmers and merchants, cutting out the cost of the middle man, which means that they can charge reasonably for the superb standard of light and healthy cuisine that they offer.
We were celebrating our anniversary and enjoying one last taste of summer, staying at iconic couples’ hideaway Bill & Coo Suites & Lounge, so it was only fitting that we reserved a front-row seat at Mykonos’ so-called Little Venice, where nice n easy enjoys prime position.
We took a seat at one of the simple but smart pinewood table at the outer edge of the restaurant, which looks out over the Aegean and up at the island’s distinctive windmills.
Here, the meltemi winds frequently whip the sea into a frenzy of choppy waves in July and August, providing much-needed respite from high summer heat. But that evening, the twinkling lights above Little Venice’s row of cocktail bars and restaurants cast ribbons of colour across uncharacteristically calm waters.
We started with a salad of mixed summer greens, organic baby spinach, sundried tomatoes, Mykonian xinotyri goat cheese coated in blonde and black sesame seeds, and plenty of toasted pine nuts on top, laced with a Mavrodaphne wine-based vinaigrette.
We took Christoforidis’ recommendation to sample delicate talagani cheese from the Peloponnese’s Messinia prefecture. A little similar in taste and texture to haloumi (which is from Cyprus, not Greece for those who confuse the two cuisines), the cheese was gently caramelised with brown sugar and spread with a thin layer of lime-arugula jelly.
I spied scallops on the menu and thought about the days when my father would take my sister and I to Mornington Pier on a Sunday morning to pick up scallops from fishmongers that were so fresh, they were still moving when he prised them open with a knife.
In recent years, it’s been disappointing to find that the tasty mollusc – in its entirety – has proven increasingly hard to come by. What happens to all that delicious vivid orange roe?
When the quinotto with king scallops that I ordered at nice n easy turned up, not only did the little wonders arrive with roe intact, but they were treated just as they should.
They were cooked just enough to remain juicy and springy to the touch, preserving all of the scallop’s extraordinary flavour.
Quinotto is Athanasiadis’ clever Greek take on risotto where super food quinoa is used instead of rice, absorbing all of the delicious aromas and essences of the seafood. It’s considerably lighter than risotto, or the kritharotto – the version made with orzo, that you can find in quite a number of Greek restaurants.
The scallops also brought back memories of a Mykonos trip with a girlfriend many years back when I asked a local taverna owner where I could buy fresh seafood to make a spaghetti ai frutti di mare back at the studio we had rented. We were, after all, twenty-somethings with a limited budget for dining out.
I found it quite amusing, at the time, to see Italians walking around Mykonos Town carrying a box of ingredients, including plenty of pasta, they had brought with them.
The taverna owner immediately recruited a young guy, who excitedly led me through the maze-like alleyways to a hidden hole-in-the-wall fishmonger, who provided me with the necessary seafood supplies and at a very non-Mykonos price.
My girlfriend was suitably impressed with the end result. Today, my Italian husband Carlo would probably say I overcooked the pasta.
At nice n easy, he appreciated a generous 350g cut of tender, perfectly medium-rare chargrilled Black Angus rib eye served with a Béarnaise sauce, hand-cut fried, oregano-dusted potatoes and sautéed asparagus.
Vegan dishes include vine leaves stuffed with herbed rice and a basil pesto sauce on a bed of blackeyed peas and quinoa risotto with vegetables, tofu and fresh white truffle flakes from Crete.
Nice n easy also has a good range of Greek wines to choose from, among them an organic Sauvignon Blanc-Malagouzia from the Tetramythos estate in the Peloponnese town of Diakofto, which went particularly well with the scallops.
While seating is plentiful, if you’re planning to visit Mykonos in the peak summer months, it’s a good idea to book ahead.
Last month, the dynamic duo opened their second restaurant on Mykonos. Nesaea, situated at windsurfer-favourite Kalafatis beach, Athanasiadis fashions inventive Greek island cuisine with ingredients from all over the archipelago, presented in a tasting menu format.
Tel: +30 22890 25421