Ten Days, 2 Cities, a new drink (to me), a whole lot of fish, and the odd urge to keep saying “there you go” …
A stay at Athens’ Hotel Grande Bretagne is a step back in time. Maybe it’s the late ’40’s or early ’50’s – when much of the city’s white, boxy ubiquitous housing was built. Maybe it’s few steps farther back, to the turn of the 20th century, when the hotel’s pared-down neo classical facade (also white, boxy and plain) probably seemed more modern than appropriate among the beautiful decay of ancient stone.
The GB’s lobby lobby is neither white nor plain. It teems with the sort of color that bespeaks comfort, status, and exclusivity – in a heavy-lidded bling-is-not-welcome sort of way. Mosaic floors and grand area rugs compete with carved, gilt, and lushly upholstered furniture. There are flowers and swaths of decadent space that turn sitting areas into quiet islands. It’s as if the grande dame of Greek hotel aristocracy is caught in a time warp, and it’s always 1895, or maybe 1925. Whatever her date of birth, the GB has a way of charming her guests.
Our first meal in Greece was lunch at the GB. We left Phoenix at 9 a.m. and arrived in Athens around 10 a.m. – the next day. We planned to check in, find a place to have lunch and do some light sightseeing. The goal was to get the most out of our four days in Athens and at the same time game the system and wake up the next day perky and sans jet-lag.
When we checked in we learned that our plan (who knew our travel agent got us a plan) included a complimentary lunch. By 1:00 pm we’d unpacked, showered, and were sitting on the balcony of the hotel’s rooftop restaurant. It might be the view of the Acropolis that makes the Bretagne grand.
On some level my affection was had for a meal and a view. At least it was a really nice meal and a spectacular view.
Grilled Mediterranean Seabass was the daily fish. In Athens this is a local, sustainable choice. Tender, with a phyllo-thin char-crisped layer of flesh on top, the juicy fish was bathed in buttery olive oil and served on top of simply steamed (and olive-oiled) vegetables. It was everything a piece of fish should be. It exceeded my expectations. It was what I hoped the food in Greece would be like.
When we returned to the room after lunch there was baklava … A small sampler on a plate … Just waiting … In case the lunch wasn’t enough of a welcome.
Before the fish we shared a crisp-crunchy, creamy, herbaceous, confetti of a salad. It had salt from the feta, capers, and kalamata olives. There was sweetness from the ripe tomatoes as well as the buttery feta. There was a hint of bitter in the olives, and the vinaigrette added a barely-there presence of sour-in-a-good-way. The mindfulness of the chef was clear. This was a salad that merited a few turns of the plate and so that it could be admired from more than one vantage point.
That first night, after a few hours of walking near the Plaka and the Flea Market, we ate at the King George Hotel. Like the GB, it has a rooftop restaurant, and it was next door. Out desire for adventure was tempered by sleep deprivation – we needed an easy first day. We also wanted to max out on places with a view – which in Athens often means a place that faces the Acropolis. The sun sets, day turns into balmy evening, and when the lights on the Parthenon are lit time blurs.
Greece isn’t simply a costal land. The ragged edges of the sea and coast are woven together. Every time I ate I was esquisitely aware of the Mediterranean. When I’m in San Diego I can see water, but it rarely has anything to do with the food on my plate.
The squid at the King George was grilled, served on romaine and dressed with a sort of lemon aioli. Jimmy speaks Greek, but for me the wait staff spoke English. For the next ten days a salad dressing was “sauce” and a thick sauce was “mousse.” One morning my toast came with tahini, which I was told was “sesame mousse.”
I reiterate a heartfelt “efcharistó” to the King George for my second lovely meal in Athens. Whether it was dressed with aioli, sauce or mousse, the end result was memorable.
Starting each day with breakfast at the GB’s rooftop restaurant has a mantra-like quality. Losing track of time is part of the appeal. If you’re eye level with the parthenon and don’t forget about current events it’s time to put your phone on vibrate.
My idea of a perfect breakfast includes coffee, fruit, a piece of pastry and yogurt. It the yogurt has local honey, and a generous helping of sweet, almost chewey pistachios, morning nirvana is imminent. Among the GB’s selection of local honeys the mildly aromatic fig was my favorite. The pistachios in the yogurt also studded the marzipan balls I bought at a fruit, nut, and confectionary shop.
My favorite lunch in Athens had as much to do with the company as the food. We had a late lunch (after about seven hours of non-stop museum walking) with our guide. Anthi took us to a hole in the wall called “H Kphth.” Not a bad password if you’re due for a change.
The restaurant is comprised of 3 rooms, connected by a shared-with-other-businesses walkway. It specializes in the foods of Crete, and we had a feast. The fried smelts, the greens (horta), and the stuffed eggplant were my favorites, but every feast has an idiosyncratic charm, and everything on the table contributed the a memorable culinary wooing.
Yes, there’s more. Next up: A few more meals in Athens, more views, and an intro to Tsiporo.
Then, on to Santorini.