Oinopoleio Cook House, Athens

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We’d heard of Oinopoleio through our Greek contacts; they’d described it as a traditional wine shop and restaurant where you could get simple, high quality food and wine from the owner’s own vineyard and listen to good music at the same time.

“And,” remarked a good Greek friend, “even though it’s just ten minutes walk from the Plaka, you’re likely to be the only tourist in there.”

This thought appealed to us so we looked on the Oinopoleio website and discovered that they have different music on different nights of the week.

“Friday night is original Rebetika, which is village music played by a band” Lamia said, “and Saturday is Laika, with three people singing and playing bouzouki, that sort of thing. The site says they have more shows than what’s listed though so if you wanted to go another night we could call them and ask what they’ve got going on if you want?”

We settled on the Friday night Rebetika as we’d never heard that type of music played live before and arrived at the restaurant early in order to eat before the entertainment started. It was easy to find, just a few metres from the central Iroon Square in Psiri. Here’s how the views looked as we approached.

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There was no doubting, as we entered, that this was a genuine, old style taverna. There was a colourful, interesting interior but the whole feeling was that this was created for a local market rather than playing up to tourists. We sat at the counter for a few minutes whilst our table was being made up…

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…and then moved into the main part of the restaurant. The men at the table beside us were smoking cigars, even though it’s technically illegal in Greece to smoke indoors.

“The last time I saw a person smoking indoors was during the 1990′s in Dhaka,” said Lamia. It was obviously better for a sense of nostalgia than it was for our health but the men were decent enough to ask us if we were bothered by the smell and we decided that we weren’t, cigars are different to cigarettes and quite pleasant really, for a limited time. Here are a couple of views I snapped from our table.

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Old style Greek music played over the sound system (it sounded like old Hindi ghazals, Lamia commented) as the band was getting ready to perform, tuning up and arranging their amplifiers. They were in their late 20s and all cargo pants, hoodies and hip haircuts. We took advantage of the relative quiet and spoke to Maria, the owner, who told us a little about the history of the place.

“My great grandfather started a simple wine in this place during 1928 and carried on for many years, selling the wine our family made on our own vineyards and a limited range of food. We still sell this wine here, in fact, our wine is the centre of things for us. We aim to create a hospitable atmosphere and offer clean food but the highlight, I think, is our high quality, locally grown wine.”

We didn’t waste any time sampling some of this wine. We ordered a couple of glasses of house red, made from the Agiorgitiko grape, to start with. It was smooth, the sort of wine that even on your first sip encourages you to linger around the glass (rather than pulling away in haste, as some lesser wines do). I’ve rarely had a bad house wine in Greece, and Oinopoleio’s house red is better than most I’d say.

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Maria showed us around the cellar bar where the walls are decorated with old photos and paintings created by herself and her friends. This part of the restaurant is also a wine shop, open all through the day for walk-in purchases.

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Back at our table I could see tourists walking past outside; they would have a quick glance in, look longingly at the lively atmosphere but then move on. We felt sorry for them as they were missing out on just the sort of thing they were probably searching for; an authentic Greek taverna. I could understand their reluctance to enter as from the outside it looks like the sort of place you need to understand before you can totally enjoy, what with people smoking indoors, the busyness and the live folk music just starting to be played. But to any tourist thinking of paying Oinopoleio a visit in the future I’d say to walk straight in as it’s an extremely friendly and welcoming place and the staff all speak excellent English (Maria has a North American accent, her mother is from Montreal). The menu is also written in clear English so there’s no issue at all with understanding anything.

“If you were bringing a dear friend to Athens and they wanted to experience something that fitted their idea of what dining out here is,” said Lamia, “then this would be a great place to take them to eat.”

The equivalent of Oinopoleio in England would be a wooden beamed country pub serving local ales whilst a few people jammed together with their fiddles and acoustic guitars. Such pubs exist, of course, but you know how rare it is to find a place that not only looks but also feels like this…

Ok, time to talk about the food. Maria suggested that we order the Greek way. That is, to get a few dishes, put them in the middle of the table and then for both of us to pick from them whilst we enjoyed the music.

First we ordered the Zucchini fried balls with herby yogurt dip.

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They had a crispy, deep fried outer but were soft and gooey inside. The menu did say that they were supposed to be zucchini and tomato but our waiter explained that since tomatoes weren’t in season at that time they’re weren’t going to include them as they’re too watery during winter. It was nice to see this commitment to seasonal product and in my opinion the dish didn’t suffer at all from being just zucchini. Although the balls were lightly fried the overall feel was of a comforting, substantial dish and I can’t imagine any person alive not enjoying them. I’ve had these zucchini balls several times now in Athens as they’re a much loved local dish and these were the best, by far.

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Alongside the zucchini balls we ordered the Cheese pie from Giannena.

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Made with eggs and three types of cheese it was more of a tortilla or a flan as we’d know it rather than a pie as it had no pastry encasing it at all. But whilst saying that, I’d add that it was one of the best cheese flans I’ve ever had.

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We also ordered a Vareniki traditional fresh ravioli filled with anthotyro cheese in fresh tomato sauce with garlic and rosemary…

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…which was lovely. Half moons of substantial pasta packed with feta in a sauce of ripe tomato and subtle garlic and rosemary. There’s much more sauce than you’d expect if you were served this in Italy although there’s also bread on the table to mop it up. This was real home style cooking.

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Lamia had seen some nice looking roast potatoes behind the counter…

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…but we couldn’t see them on the menu as they are just something they serve alongside other main dishes so we just asked for these oven baked potatoes with a yogurt dip on the side and the staff happily brought them to us.

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The potatoes were traditional English roast style –  soft tender interior, crispy exterior – and for me they were similar to some of the best roast potatoes I’ve had. Every bit as good as my mothers, I’d say.

I had decided not to have a main course so instead ordered a couple more side dishes. First was the Fava bean pâté with grilled onions and capers.

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The Fava beans were mashed to a smooth, thick purée and served with large wedge of lemon, rusks and a mix of capers and olive oil in the centre. This is another tasty dish I’ve never eaten before (the nearest I’ve come to it is Egyptian Fuul) and it can be taken as a spread on bread or just eaten straight with a spoon. An excellent dish that gave me my protein whilst allowing me to keep to the vegetarian diet that I like to follow.

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Finally I had the fried feta cheese in a sesame crust with honey.

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Let me tell you, this dish was very special. Hot feta sweetened with honey encased in crunchy sesame with a side of apple soaked in red wine and then boiled with cinnamon. I learnt quickly to eat it right; bite into it too soon and the cheese is very hot, leave it too long though and the sesame coating turns from crunchy to chewy. This was another dish that I loved yet had never tried outside of Greece before.

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For main Lamia had the boneless chicken thighs with a mustard sauce on top.

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“It’s a flattened piece of chicken thigh, grilled with a bed of small potato wedges and a giant roasted red pepper, all sprinkled with herbs,” said Lamia. “The chicken is moist, tender, cuts easily and has that tasty chargrilled flavour. The roast potatoes, well, we already tried them, they’re soft and crunchy, lovely. The red pepper isn’t too sweet either, and adds a little oily moistness to the dish.”

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The crowd was by now lively; there was a mix of young and old, all of them enjoying the live music. The guys on the next table asked us where we were from and then bought us a round of drinks.

“Let death pass us by!” they saluted as we drank (it was a traditional ‘cheers’ from the island of Chios, where they were from, they explained).

The band were excellent. It’s rare to hear a band playing this rebetika music in Athens, we’d been told, as it’s usually something that happens in the villages. After half an hour or so we finished our drinks and then, before leaving, took a few photos of the band playing.

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We’d recommend you visit Oinopoleio for some good value, excellent quality Greek wine and food and some decent music. We’re not sure if it’s the best old style Greek taverna in the area as we haven’t visited them all but we have eaten at a fair few and this was the best of them all. You might be wise to reserve if you want to visit on a Friday or Saturday night, just send an email and Maria will book you in.

To discover more, and to see some videos of the music on offer there, please visit www.oinopoleio.gr

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