Tag Archives: #baklava

An introduction to the cuisine of the. Greek Cyclades, Part 2: The dishes

The second in a series featuring Greek cuisine and the restaurants of Mykonos.

Two posts ago, we set the stage for a Greek drama: The wonderful cuisine of Greece. We discovered the raw ingredients that comprise some of Greece’s beloved dishes; today, we will explore the dishes themselves. Some are so beloved they have been adopted the world over, while others may be an undiscovered culinary frontier.

The meats:

Souvlaki/Souvlakia

Skewers of marinated, grilled meat, or what most know as kebobs (kebabs) are a staple of many culinary traditions. In Greece, they come from a range of meats – pork, chicken, lamb, and sometimes, beef.

Kefta

These skewers of mixed, seasoned ground meats are ubiquitous in Greek and other Mediterranean cuisines. In Greece, they’re typically a blend of lamb and beef.

Grilled octopus

The simplest is best. Succulent octopus is at its best when grilled fresh. And Greeks are picky about their octopi, so you’d be challenged to find a poor version of it in the isles.

 

Langoustine pasta, a common site at restaurants in the Greek Ies

 

Langoustines 

Europeans and South Americans are well aware of the difference between what North Americans know as shrimp and these massive prawns. Here, they often top a steaming bowl of pasta, sometimes in concert with other forms of seafood.

Mezes

Tiramousalata
Spreadable herring or cod sounds unappetizing, but it’s fluffy, masculine whipped that puts tuna salad to shame. The secret ingredient is soaked bread (or sometimes another starch, such as potatoes), which gives this meze its thick, creamy consistency.

  

Pitta bread
The pita pocket bread many of us grew up with is a poor representation of Greece. True Greek pita bread is slightly puffy and chewy – not quite as thick as its Turkish cousin. As an appetizer or compliment to Tzatziki or meat, topped with herbs, it’s all good!

 

Delicious spanakopita

 

Spanakopita and Tiropita

No, they’re not stuffed pita breads! These delightful pastries, typically made of flaky phyllo dough, are definitely not a weight loss staple. Spanakopita, at least, incorporates a vegetable: its spinach, herb, and cheese filling with hints of lemon is deliciously complex and not so much as guilt-inducing as tiropita. Tiropita consists of flaky pastry stuffed with a savory soft cheese. It’s up there as one of the most unhealthy things one could eat in Greek cuisine. It is rich, yet addictive. Buttery, tart, salty, tangy with a feta alternative, it surely is a crowd pleaser. And waistline expander.

  
Kolokithokefthedes, or Zucchini fritters
The Greeks know how to make vegetables fun. If I had tried these as a picky child, even I would have enjoyed them. Like crab cakes, wide variation exists – some by adding more breading, some egg, some garlic. In general, the best are fluffy, almost weightless, and are easy to overdo. Others are quite heavier

  

Domatokefthedes
I laughed when I first saw “tomato balls” on an English-language menu. Really? I couldn’t picture anything other than fried green tomatoes. Then, I tried them. I would call them an expressionist’s version of tomato. Not unlike the most heavily traded zucchini fritters, most variants were more like heavily breaded fritters or croquettes, where the tomato enhanced the delicious, carbohydrate laden base than the other way around. Still, they were way more delicious than your average tomato!

  
Tzatziki
Calling it a condiment is insulting. The irresistible combination of thick, Greek yogurt, fresh cucumber, garlic, and dill is on every Greek menu, yet every chef or cook seems to put his or her own spin on it – perhaps a bit of lemon juice, red wine vinegar, or a heavier dose of garlic. Good enough to eat on its own, Greeks love to slather French fries in it, and I love scooping it up with Greek pitta or topping burgers with it.

 

Greek salad

 

Greek salad…
…is another item poorly misinterpreted by the Western Hemisphere. We overdo it out west, with our romaine, black olives, and heavy dressing laden with fillers. 

 

Another variant of Greek salad

 
The Greeks go simple: tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta with herbs, thick croutons, olive oil, and perhaps a touch of vinegar. But with that simplicity comes a staggering range of variations. Substitute torn, chewy pitta for baked bread, and the result is more like an Italian panzanella.

Sweets

  

Baklava
Oh, baklava! Your comforting honey and cinnamon-drenched pine nut or walnut filling and flaky phyllo layers are one of my favorite desserts that do not involve chocolate. What separates it from other Mediterranean, Turkish, or Arab versions? Pistachios are far more common in the Levant than in Greece.

  

Loukoumades
Doughnut holes on steroids are a good way to describe these airy clouds of fried dough, drenched with – you guessed it – honey. They may be a bit messy, but they are a delicious mess!

If these Greek specialties don’t make you want to run out and Yelp the best Greek restaurant in town – or travel to Greece, I don’t know what will do so!

San Francisco’s Kokkari: Incomparable Five-Star Greek food and ambiance

When I imagine the perfect setting for an upscale Greek meal – outside of Greece – I now will visualize Kokkari Estiatorio, an experience without equal on the U.S. West Coast. Its execution, ambiance, and service left virtually no room for critique during my recent visit. You know a restaurant experience is sublime when you couldn’t have ordered any better. None of the “I wish I’d ordered the…”
Situated on a stretch of Jackson Street in the northernmost reaches of San Francisco’s Financial District, Kokkari is surrounded by some of San Francisco’s culinary heavy hitters like Quince and Cotogna, as if these restaurants needed to distance themselves from the overpriced franchises of international celebrity chefs closer to the heart of the district. The entire FiDi, in my opinion, is nothing much for looks. In general, I think of it as 1990 frozen in time – Wall Street hit the West Coast’s financial center a bit later – ok, maybe not frozen thanks to 25 years of wind, fog, and minimal upkeep. A bit harsh? Perhaps, but my point is all that neighborhood charm (or lack thereof) goes – stays? – out the window once one enters Kokkari Estiatorio.

  
Inside Kokkari, unvarnished wood, rustic chandeliers, and woven textile tapestries transport the diner back to the Old World (Ok, a modern Old World). We instantly relaxed.

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part of Kokkari’s wine cellar

We ordered a bottle of 2009 Rosati Cabernet Sauvignon from California’s Mendocino County, which had an unexpectedly high alcohol content for a cab (at 14.9%) and a great nose of ripe red fruit. It was a bit heavy for delicate Old World food, but Kokkari’s flavors could hold up to just about anything – not least the potent pine aromas of classic Greek retsina.

  
Kolokithokeftethes, or Zucchini fritters = perfection. I’ve had some memorable incarnations of them in the past (Washington, DC’s Zatinya being one of them), but I think Kokkari’s won my heart. They were light, melt-in-your mouth texture, with a flavor tough to describe because each individual component was so well matched with the others that the sum is far better than each part. They were accompanied by thick, rich tzatziki.

A word on Kokkari’s tzatziki: If you can imagine a farm-to-table condiment, this is it. The yogurt base is thick and rich; the cucumber subtle yet omnipresent; the dill fresh as if picked that day; the garlic enhancing and synthesizing the flavors – that ingredient you don’t really notice because it’s doing its job. It was so good, we had to order a side order of it.

  
We ordered the Maroulosalata, generous portion of chopped salad with the salty, lemony tang of romaine and radicchio lettuces, kalamata olives, and pine nuts dressed in a feta vinaigrette.

  
Our polished server brought us a complimentary beet mezthede (mezze) called pantzaria. despite our pants already being full (sorry, how could I resist a terrible turn at wordplay), we devoured.

  

  
At that point, we should have stopped there. Every dish was fantastic, but I had little room for my main course – lamb souvlaki. The lamb was seasoned expertly, but it was perhaps not as tender as I would like. Had I been more hungry, and had I not tasted the perfection of the previous dishes, I likely would be raving about the lamb now. What I will rave about were the roasted fingerling potatoes. I rarely eat white potatoes (not a lot of nutritional value), but these were irresistible. Dipped in a bit of tzatziki, they are an addiction. I’m relieved they aren’t readily available.

  
We had no choice but to request takeout boxes to save our lamb and tzatziki, and though we were painfully full, we had to see if Kokkari could elevate baklava the way it did every other staple of Greek cuisine. The verdict: the baklava was good but not memorable or distinct, but the accompanying vanilla-praline ice cream was one of San Francisco’s best (a tall order with greats like Humphry Slocombe and churned-to-order Smitten, or my own homemade creations!). It was impossibly creamy, smooth.

Kokkari offered everything one would want in experiential dining – ambiance, attentive service, and memorable food. To say I couldn’t envision it better myself is an understatement. I will return!