Athens by George Calombaris

There’s far more to the Greek capital than ancient history. George Calombaris looks beyond the city’s gritty façade and uncovers its culinary heart and soul, from traditional tavernas and delicatessens to the hottest new dining stars.

The first time I took my girlfriend, Natalie, to Greece, she said, "Do we have to go to Athens?" She'd been to the city before and done the main touristy things. I said to her, "Just experience Athens through my eyes, and then you can make that decision again. See it through my eyes and we'll see how we go." Now she loves the place. She can't get enough of it. Athens is all about looking for and finding all the places that have got a lot of heart and soul.
Take Mandragoras, for example, the coolest deli you'll ever see. We all know what an olive's like, but there's a certain feeling you get when you're in Greece in a shop like this and you're eating an olive you know has come from only 50km away. You can tell it's been made with love.
Take Spondi, Greece's restaurant jewel. The street it's on is nothing special. It's about the experience. As soon as you enter those big brass doors, you're entering a dining experience. It's phenomenal.
Take a 10-minute cab ride down to the seaside suburb of Glyfada, a beautiful coastal stretch. It's like the Great Ocean Road on steroids. You can pull up outside a little pastry shop, have your coffee, have something sweet, have a little swim, get some salt around your mouth, and then you're off having a little snack in a taverna.
In Athens, it's as though everything is buried under soil. What you need to do is dig a little, and what you'll find is the little old man who makes the sandals for the ladies who wear the wreaths on their heads for each Olympics. His craft has been passed down from generation to generation. The city is all about nooks and crannies - you turn left, you turn right, and among the chaos and the craziness and the recession, there's so much beauty.
People talk a lot about Greece's recession at the moment, but you know what? I'm not saying that's a good thing, but you've got to look past the clouds to find the beauty. If anything, what the recession is doing, especially on the food scene, is pushing people to try harder, to say we can't be complacent any more and rest on our laurels. We've got to live for the future now, we've got to start pushing our food, being affordable, doing all those things that need to be done for a country to push itself out of recession.
I get to Greece once or twice a year. It has to happen: it's my inspiration, it invigorates me, and it gives me new ideas to bring back to Australia and translate on my menus here.
There's a saying in Greece: "During the day we might be poor, but at night we're very rich and wealthy." Athenians are out every night enjoying life to the nth degree. That's something I wish we could do a bit more of in Australia. We need to enjoy life a bit more.
Miran Cured Meats Shop Miran is owned by Turkish Greeks, and the whole family work in it, which is just beautiful. It's a bit like a New York deli, with everything cured and salted and brined and smoked. All the gentlemen are at the back slicing up the cured meats, dressed up with ties on, and the rest of the family are running around doing everything else. One thing that stands out is the bonito they get from Turkey. They lightly cure the bonito and put it in olive oil. It is to die for, absolutely to die for. You take a knife, you take a slice, you pop it on some bread. It's absolutely phenomenal. Evripides 45, Athens, +30 21 0321 7187.
Ariston The kasseropita I ate at Ariston was one of the best pites I've ever eaten in my life. Kasseri is a type of hard Greek cheese similar to parmesan but made with goat's milk, and pita of course is pie, hence kasseropita. You walk in, there are queues of people, they collect their pie and they walk off and start eating it straightaway. Voulis 10, Syntagma.
Mandragoras Piraeus is the main port of Greece. It's a very old area, and it's known for its underworld. In wartime, back in the 1940s and and '50s, it had lots of underground clubs where men only would come and drink and smoke interesting substances and sing songs about war, love and death. This place is full of culture. Mandragoras is the coolest delicatessen. It's all Greek produce, and some Turkish, such as the best barrel-aged fetas,spices, halva, meats, louza (a traditional cured Cypriot meat), and olives - so many different olives you'd lose your mind. I was there with Travis McAuley, my head chef from Hellenic Republic in Melbourne, and to see his face when he saw all this was exciting for me. He was just gobsmacked. He runs a very successful Greek restaurant and here I was showing him the real McCoy.
There are little wild onions that grow in the mountains in Crete, called volvoi, which are pickled and eaten as a little mezze. They're delicious. Avgotaraho is cured and salted mullet roe, similar to bottarga, but it's different; this stuff is just to die for. Staka is thick cream - you bring cream up to the boil, you let it cool down, you scoop up the thick cream from the top, and you cook with this stuff. Mountain thyme, mountain tea, mountain oregano - all these products have got a gamy, wild smell, rather than that straightforward thyme smell. Little things like that are phenomenal. Gounari 14, Piraeus, +21 0417 2961.
Papaioannou The setting here is "really dodgy bad Greek taverna with plastic tablecloths". There are certainly no waterfront views - it's very close to the port, but you can't see the water. It's the type of place you would never walk into. But when you do walk in, you're in love.
It was the best seafood I've ever eaten. The chef, George Papaioannou, isn't a chef, he's a cook. He was in there with a T-shirt on. That day, all you could get was prawns from the Peloponnese, sea urchin, and barbounia, which is red mullet. He does the prawns in three styles: he grills them with a little bit of lemon and olive oil and he sends them out. Then he poaches them in a tomato sauce, crumbles a bit of feta over the top, sends them out. Then he does them "lathera", where he cooks them in olive oil then squeezes all the juice from the heads of the prawns and makes the sauce out of that. So you get these three totally different dishes that taste absolutely amazing from one ingredient. I'm not talking the prawns we get in Australia - and I love Australian produce - but these prawns were f*-off amazing.
He did a brilliant technique with red mullet. He fillets the red mullet, soaks them in vinegar for 30 minutes, takes them out, flours them very well, and then pan-fries them so you get crisp outside flesh, and when you bite into them, you get a little burst of vinegar with the fish, and you feel like you're eating fish and chips. It was just delicious.
He fries his chips in olive oil to order. And you're sitting there and going, oh my god, absolutely brilliant stuff. The service was efficient and quick. And what I loved was that as they were bringing the food out they kept giving you a clean plate. You didn't even have to look up once and it was just done. Filippou 5, Mikrolimano, Piraeus, +30 21 0422 5059.
P-box P-Box is a Greek version of a New York deli. I was so inspired by the really yummy, cool, very simple food - Greek food with a lot of Japanese influences. For example, chef Christoforos Peskias makes melitzanosalata, a traditional Greek eggplant dip, but he dresses it with teriyaki sauce and kombu seaweed. He adds this umami-ness to food to take it to another level. He also does a version of a food-truck dish called vromiko, which translates as "dirty". The food-truck version consists of sausages, eggs and tomatoes all cooked in one pot, served in a piece of paper and eaten with a fork. All the chefs in Athens go to the food truck to eat it late at night. But Christoforos's version uses really good Cypriot sausages with a 63.8-degree egg over the top. It's really good stuff.
The décor at P-Box is very simple, very airy, with lots of columns, and there's a big produce wall. Everything Christoforos cooks with, you can buy. And he doesn't serve frappé, which is a big deal in Greece. It's all about good espresso and great food. It's the kind of place that in Sydney or Melbourne everyone would be talking about. One seat down from me was Paris Latsis, one of the biggest shipping tycoons in Greece. Everyone wants to be there, everyone wants to eat there. It's cool. Levidou 11, Kifisia, +30 21 0808 8818.
Sweet Alchemy Stelios Parliaros is the number-one pastry chef in the country, and his Sweet Alchemy consists of two venues: his shop in Kolonaki, which sells cakes and chocolates, and his studio, not far from the shop. I spent one afternoon with Stelios in his studio eating a cake he'd made on MasterChef Greece, a 17-million-layered chocolate gateau. It had handmade chocolate leaves, glaçage on the top, a salty caramel layer, a joconde base, some sort of mousse, a bit of crunch from nougatine or praline - yum stuff. The guy is just an absolute legend. He was born in Turkey of Greek parents, and he's got a lovely way of adding a layer of Middle Eastern flavour into his desserts. His olive-oil chocolate mousse recipe is one of the best chocolate mousse recipes ever. Chocolate, olive oil and cream: that's it. He's a lovely man, and his boyfriend, Gregory, is a top fashion designer. They're two totally different people with one ambition, which is quality. One of them's quality fashion and the other one's quality desserts. Irodotou 24, Kolonaki, +30 21 0724 0205, Parliaros.
Tyrokomia Naxou It was seven o'clock at night and we had to be at Spondi at 9.30pm for dinner, but we were at Tyrokomia Naxou tasting the most amazing all-Greek cheeses. Myzithra is a sheep's and cow's milk cheese that you can get soft, semi-soft or hard; kefalograviera we all know as the frying cheese, but there are lots of different styles of that; barrel-aged fetas here are made from different milks and different regions. The shop is like Richmond Hill Cafe & Larder in terms of ideology, but on a grander scale, and it's not as refined. Really delicious stuff from all over Greece. The owners just kept wanting to feed us cheese. Ethnikis Antistaseos 18, Halandri, +30 21 0683 7758.
Spondi For the big night out, you're going to go to Spondi. With two Michelin stars, it's Greece's jewel. If you go there, you're going to put on a shirt and tie, and you're going to go there on a date, and you're definitely going to wow your partner. You enter this beautiful old house in an area called Pagrati. It's a bit like going to Jacques Reymond in Melbourne, or Tetsuya's in Sydney - the whole ceremony of walking through the big brass front doors to the grand interior. It's nice to enter those old-school places. You need an injection of that now and again. As soon as you enter those big brass doors, you're entering a dining experience. It's phenomenal. Pyrronos 5, Pagrati, +30 21 0756 4021.
Funky Gourmet Dinner here starts with an olive tree, a little miniature olive tree, with real leaves. From the branches hang "olives" that you pick off and they taste of olive oil and bread. These guys are doing cutting-edge modern Greek stuff. I wouldn't be surprised if Funky Gourmets gets a Michelin star next year, possibly two, and possibly a spot in the top 100. It's top stuff, very cool. Paramythias 13, Keramikos, Athens 10435, +30 21 0524 2727.
Gaspar Gaspar was opened by the guys behind a place called Rock and Roll, one of the oldest and coolest clubs in Athens for many years. Downstairs is a restaurant, and upstairs is a bar where everyone goes after dinner. The restaurant does very modern Greek with Japanese influences. I remember eating their version of ekmek, a custard served with mastic ice-cream. It's a very happening place, even if you just go for drinks and snacks upstairs. It's a 25- to 40-year-old crowd, everyone hanging out and acting really cool.
Dimitriou Vasiliou, Psyxiko, +30 21 0677 5011.
Semiramis Hotel Kifisia is the Mosman of Athens, the Toorak. It's 25 minutes from the centre of Athens, and it's home to the Semiramis Hotel, which is owned by a Greek-Cypriot guy with an internationally renowned art collection. It's very out-there, and the fact that it's in the suburbs makes it even more interesting. The amenities are just right. I don't have to walk in and remove 35,000 pamphlets off the bed. It's very simple, with comfortable beds, cool showers and cool architecture, but very loud in terms of colour. During my stay, the other guests ranged from businessmen and couples to Greece's answer to Kylie Minogue and a couple of other top Greek singers. Harlilaou Trikoupi 48, Kifisia, +30 21 0628 4400, Yeshotels.