While Athens, Georgia is one of my favorite Southern cities, it's Athens, Greece that pulls at my heart strings. In 2004 during the Summer Olympics, I kept an apartment there for a year. So for my Culinary Learning Journey for summer 2011, I ventured back to the original classic city: Athens, Greece.
I love the Athenians....and they love themselves. Their patron god, Athena, is honored everywhere around the city and in many different versions. There's Athena Polities (keeper of the city), Athena Teutopolis (slayer of bulls), and Athena Nikephoros (she who brings victory) just to name a few. Not quite unlike Barbie (wedding Barbie, tennis Barbie, police Barbie), Athena comes in hundreds of forms.
But, while it is easy to get lost in Greek Mythology, the goal of my trip was to revisit my old haunts and restaurants to enjoy the cuisine and the culture. Specifically, I'm missing some Greek street food.
Greek food is simple and tied to the difficult terrain of the land, which is dry and arid. Olive oil is the foundation for all Greek culinary delights. While olive oil may make most think of Italy, most chefs agree that the olive oil from Greece is the best. So, it seemed appropriate to have my first dinner at the Olive Garden. Not THAT Olive Garden, but the restaurant on top of the Titania Hotel, just steps from Central Downtown Athens and Omonia Metro Station.
Haute cuisine, literally and figuratively, Titania Hotel's rooftop Olive Garden Restaurant also provides an exquisite haute feast for the eyes, with its stunning panorama of the Acropolis, the Lycabettus and the city beyond. Modern yet romantic, cosmopolitan yet Greek, upscale yet subdued, the Olive Garden is an urban oasis for Hotel guests and Athenians alike. Here, I dined on Lamb Stew with Tomatoes and Pasta, and a Village Salad of rocquet, fennel frongs, pine nuts, and sundried tomatoes with Country Ham and Fried Cheese.
Around the Omonia Metro Station, street vendors sell the Greek version of the pretzel. No continental breakfast here, these doughy delights are topped with sesame seeds and may be crunchy or soft, but all are delicious. They are known as Simit in Turkey and Turkish bagels in the States. Loukoumades can be found all around Omonia and Syntagma Square's street vendors. These golden puffs of joy are Greece’s small stake in the doughnut world. Deep-fried dough soaked in sugar, honey, and sometimes cinnamon.
Welcome to Monastiraki Square
The next day its off to Monastiraki to get down with the real thing: Gyro's. (Pronounced yee-row. Ji-row is a dancing move.) Gryo's are built from the doner kabob which is roasted meats stacked on a spit and cooked rotisserie style. The Doner Plate is not a gryo wrapped up in pita, but the sliced meat is presented on the plate and contains all the traditional accompaniments such as lettuce, tomato, onions and tzat-ziki sauce. Gyros, wrapped in the Pita ,are mostly only available at the to-go counter.
Welcome to Exarchia Square
When I lived in Athens during 2004, my "hood" was Exarchia. Exarchia, like a college town within the city of Athens, sits between the University of Athens and the Politechnion and is home to students, immigrants, Greek families of different economic strata, restaurants, cafes, computer shops, used vinyl and CD shops, terrific guitar shops, used bookshops, boutiques, clubs, bars, anarchists, drug addicts, stray dogs and just about every kind of person, except cops. December of 2008 policemen shot and killed a 15 year old boy which set off an orgy of violence, looting and burning that was captured by television cameras and beamed around the world for all to see. Exarchia had made the big-time.
But what I found in 2011was more like my old stomping grounds. Plenty of rock clubs, cafes and restaurants in a sort of cop-free zone which attracts young people and other counter-culture types. This creates something of a scene, where you can go for your night time entertainment never sure of what is going to happen. Cops posted around the area are to keep the ner-the-wells in, not the tourists out.
Plenty of cafes and walk-up windows to enjoy "sandwitches", whatever those are, and pizza! More Greek Salad!
And of course, had to snap a photo of my old apartment overlooking Exarchia Square and cafes. Wish I 'd known then I was hip. I was just looking for cheap!