From SanTana to Santorini: Travels through Greece With a Lot of Retsina
David C Mau
Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!!
I know it's trashy but I love Retsina. If you've never had it don't feel bad, it's pretty hard to come by here. It's kind of hard to describe and I have the sinking feeling it's considered the Boone's Farm Kountry Kwencher of Greece but damn it's good on a hot afternoon there. It's a dry white wine, with a healthy dose of what tastes like Pine-Sol due to the addition of Aleppo Pine resin during the manufacturing process. It's been made for at least 2000 years, the origins being a bit cloudy but it appears the unique flavor started from the pine sap used to seal wine jars in ancient times. I'll drink myself silly on it while stuffing my face with fried sardines in a seaside taverna and it's just one of a thousand things I love about Greece-and I love it a lot.
Now, Athens can be kind of sketchy if you get too far off The Plaka, but the Greeks Isles are a joy to visit. It's a cliche for sure but damn they are stunning. Even more beautiful are their inhabitants and I'm not talking about physical appearance either (although compared to the sunburned and speedo-clad chubby German tourists there just about anything looks good). The Greeks have gorgeous souls and a wacky, obsessive hospitality that is hard to pin down. It's more than caring for caring's sake, it's sort of a one-upmanship on who can be more hospitable.
I think the only island as beautiful as the people is Santorini, even though it's slammed with tourists to the point of bursting during their busy season. When those cruise ships pull up in the the caldera that forms the bay and dump out their contents all bets are off about what kind of time you're gonna have there. The streets are positively slammed with folks during the midday but things usually lighten up when everyone heads back onboard later. That's my favorite time to wander the narrow alleys and soak up the goodness there. It's a fact, though, that Fira town and the neighboring Oia are almost....(almost).....to beautiful to bear.
The Greeks know food and it's not just the fact they are so damed hospitable, although the french fries with everything phenomena is odd. In addition, Greeks feel, much like the rest of the Mediterranean, that late at night is a perfectly fine time to dine. I also feel a fine dinner goes down much better in the wee hours of the evening after a few beverages and the restaurants there are packed at times when most places here in the OC would be locking their doors. There are some things to be wary of though, like what their version of a "hamburger" is. You might expect something close but in Greece you're gonna get a cafeteria-style seasoned patty that tastes like it's half lamb on a funky bun. The places that usually carry these are unapologetically catering to yanks, with names like "McDaniel's" and a blatant ripoff of the Jack Daniel's label as their logo. And no matter what, never, ever order pizza in Greece. I had an experience with a "pizzeria" on Corfu so horrible wifey and I still can't talk about it without shuddering. But looking for the good stuff? Here's my picks for Santorini at least.
Of all places Lucky's Souvlaki is my favorite joint to grab a bite in Fira and it would not be out of place in the surfer-centric Ensenada of my youth except for their food. It's a favorite for the locals, that's how I got turned on to the place. Chaotic at times (but in a good way), their gyros are spot on, positively exploding with grilled meat, crispy french fries, veggies and sauce. The guy spinning them up is as flashy and efficient as any taquero here in the OC and it's a sure thing that wrap is gonna go just fine with an ice-cold Mythos (the Greek Corona) on tap. Ask the owner for a shot of the mystery liquor they have in back, it's likely a cask full of booze with snake heads soaking in it but it'll get you going for sure.
Parea Tavern is another must, they're Saganaki (fired cheese) was the best I had there and, believe me, I ate a heroic amount during my stay. Their Mousakka (sort of a carne casserole) was well executed, the ground meat mixture was perfectly seasoned, a little sweeter and spicier than others and that custard on top was as golden brown as creme brulee and just as pliable. I also think it was the best service we had was in Fira, spot on and friendly. The main dining area is a large rooftop lounge that cradles that breeze wafting in from over the sea ever so gently.
David C Mau
Mama's Kitchen, just off the main square, is hands down the best place for a romantic outdoor dinner without hitting one of the douchy tourist joints (although the Japanese couple sitting next to us ignoring each other while looking at their iPhones didn't agree). Super down to earth, the place is packed and it's the kind of spot people return to like the swallows at San Juan Cap. The Keftethes (fried Greek croquettes) were crispy and hot on the outside, tender inside and perfectly seasoned. Theirs included grated carrot which was a nice touch that gave them some sweetness without any sugar, much like our very own Mama Bonaventure adds some to her pasta sauce for the same effect. The mixed seafood plate was massive and although not striking in comparison to the other great fare it was damned good.
Champagne cocktail time!
David C Mau
For a beverage? It's kind of touristy but Franco's overlooking the bay has the best view for sure and their champagne cocktail is spot on. It's a bit spendy by Fira Town standards but you're paying for the eye candy not the booze. I feel a bit Hemmingway-esque there for some reason, it has a certain charm that reminds me the kind of place secret-filled briefcases are handed off or there is a hidden derringer in the bathroom somewhere just out of reach.
Out of Fira town and off the beaten path? The Dolphins has to be my favorite lucky find. Located near the spectacular Red Beach and Akrotiri archeological site, it's a great spot to beat the heat on a blazing afternoon. Located underneath a small pier and building above it's the most welcoming of grottos. The food wasn't the best we had, although the local fisherman pull up at the wharf that juts out from the front of the restaurant so it must be fresh. But it was a great place to sip a tall glass of ice cold Ouzo away the stifling heat and snack on some more of those tasty, tasty sardines.
Even if your travels take you only as far as Byblos Cafe on the Orange Circle, it's always great to enjoy some Greek hospitality. But if you hop the pond this travel season and make it to the homeland Santorini is a worthy a stop, tourist trap or not.
Want more of Dave's rantings/ravings/ramblings? Check out www.dinnerwithdave.com for the latest!
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