Aleria Restaurant, Athens

Aleria is our number one restaurant in Athens, if we’re looking for a fine dining experience and don’t mind not eating a vegetarian main. We love the decor and the food, and the waiting staff and Nikiforos, the manager, are brilliant. Imagine a person who’s taken notice of many of the lessons that the finest North European/American restaurateurs have to offer and then been intelligent enough to keep the best bits and dump – somewhere off the coast near Marseilles – the pretentiousness and general stand-offishness, and then imagine that person opening a restaurant in a city where the paying clientele still value genuine friendliness. If you can imagine that, and add in a sense of effortless, well travelled class then you have the beginnings of a picture of Nikiforos, and of what you might expect if you go to dine at his restaurant.

The building that the Aleria is housed in – it’s a twenty minute walk or a very short taxi ride from the central Plaka area – dates from 1895. The upper floor was created forty years later than the ground and in the the 1960′s it was a doctors home (the doctor used to enjoy breakfast on the terrace looking up at the Parthenon; there are dining tables on the terrace now, although modern buildings now block the Parthenon view). Here are a few images we took as we arrived of the building exterior and entrance hall.

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Here’s an image of Lamia and Nikiforos, and some more views of the interior.

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There were fresh white and red roses on every table as well as a duo of tea lights.

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As you can see there’s a wide range of art on display at Aleria. Some work on the walls might be called Lowry going through a dark phase whilst other pieces are much more contemporary.

“I feel as though we’re in a film set,” said Lamia, “or an antique, classy doll’s shop. Everything’s precisely placed for maximum visual impact and to show off the interior to it’s best.” Nikiforos’ mother decorated it, he was to tell us later. She’s owned a shop for over thirty years and although she’s not particularly well travelled or studied she does have a great imagination. And, I might add, she’s not afraid of being homely either, which is a quality that we enjoy very much.

I like pleasant surroundings, for sure, but not so pleasant that I don’t feel at my ease. Now some might say that not feeling at ease is my problem and that if I can’t relax in stifled surroundings it just means I’m not well bred or secure enough. And this might well be true. All I can say in defense is that whilst I enjoy heavy linen napkins, solid silver cutlery, excellently presented food and other signs of a classy dining experience, I don’t enjoy bland international or the feeling that I’m in a room with twenty other people who can’t wait to eat up and get out so they can loosen their tie. At the Aleria it’s not like that at all, and it’s all the better for it in my opinion.

We were seated (in very plush, comfy chairs) to the sound of 1960′s romantic/melancholic French chanson (it was to move onto jazz swing covers of artists such as Leonard Cohen and Rolling Stones as the evening wore on) in front of a black and white striped alcove which reminded me of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba whilst for Lamia it made her think of the shop Sephora.

“Good design is timeless,” said Lamia. “Boabdil and Audrey Hepburn and everyone of style in between and after would have felt at home here I reckon. I feel really relaxed.”

We were to eat from the degustation menu with paired wines, and whilst we waited for the first course we enjoyed a range of breads and a white caviar dip.

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There were traditional round bread rolls, slices of bread with capers and sun-dried tomatoes, brown bread with walnuts and finally bread with goats cheese and oregano. The crunchy walnut bread was my favourite and I was surprised at how subtle the caviar spread was; smooth, nothing like fish eggs in texture and a little fishy but not at all overpoweringly ‘of the water’.

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For drinks we began with a Sauvignon Karipidis, 2013, a crisp 12.5% volume white that offered a refreshing pick me up.

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Then we started with a cretan pie with feta and wild greens on a strip of filo pastry, topped with herbs.

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“It looks like a flower bouquet,” said Lamia, “like a garden fresh, spinach something, and the filo base reminds me exactly of nimki, a Bangladeshi/Indian snack I have at home, so lovely.”

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It was a cool, fresh appetizer with a pleasant range of textures, from the crunchy, baked filo to the cooked, soft spinach and slightly harder feta. I love this sort of pie, where the flavours are incredibly subtle, with some mouthfuls only offering up the slightest hint of salty feta, or fennel.

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The waiters were attentive and well-coordinated, no sooner were our plates whisked away than new cutlery was placed with an understated efficiency and a new waiter had appeared with our second course.

“Here we have roasted calamari with zucchini couscous, artichoke purée and calamari foam,” he explained. He was to explain every dish as he brought it, as the wine waiter did whenever he changed our wine.

This dish looked outstanding. Like everything we were to eat, it had visually stimulated us even before it got anywhere near our mouths.

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I feared the calamari might be chewy, which I really don’t like, but this was happily not the case; I’d say it was almost melt-in-the-mouth texture actually. The black foam was ultralight and contrasted well with the flashes of green and yellow.

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We looked across the table at each other often as we ate; we were a little confused, in a good way. Calamari is supposed to be chewy and nasty, isn’t it? Isn’t that why people eat it, because they like chewy things and they enjoy being a little different? It’s not meant to be good, I thought? And here’s me, I try to be vegetarian. What am I doing enjoying this, I should be eating with a silent feeling of superiority, not enjoying it as much as I am, it’s confusing!

Well, it was for me anyway. Lamia was mostly just enjoying the whole experience, and who can blame her for that…

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Our next dish, the waiter explained, was “Roasted lamb with white carrot puree, a pepper pickle from Florina in northern Greece and black-eyed beans.”

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To accompany it we drank a Ramnista 2010 from the Kir-Yiannis estate. It’s the first time I’ve tasted this excellent red; I hope it won’t be the last.

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Even before I’d spoken to Nikiforos about this lamb dish I had a feeling that it was a special one, that had some special association to Greece. It just tasted that way, really.

“The lamb is meant to simulate the style of spit-roasted lamb eaten here on Easter Sunday,’ said Nikiforos, “in fact, all of the dishes that you’re eating tonight have a strong connection to our society and have been arrived at after much rhetorical discussion between myself and our chef, Gikas Xenakis. Gikas, in my opinion, strikes a perfect balance between using traditional methods and thought patterns with modern techniques to bring our traditional dishes into the modern age. So, we’ve tried to create dishes that represent some aspect of Greek life, perhaps a religious festival or our closeness to the sea or simply the fact that, as a great centre of trade, Athens has always had great access to a huge amount of fresh ingredients.”

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The presentation was once again beautiful. Occasionally you come across a restaurant where the food is so delightful looking that you’re reluctant to disturb it, and that is the case with the Aleria, at least in our opinion. We sat and looked at this dish for a long few minutes, sipping our wine, reveling in the visual pleasure to be gained for the chef’s work.

“The lamb is so incredibly soft inside,” said Lamia when we finally got round to eating it, “yet the exterior is crunchy, and the light, near invisible yet potent vinaigrette on the salad, it’s a masterpiece of a dish. My only complaint is that it has to finish at some point, but thankfully not quite yet. I think this is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had in my life, I want all my loved ones to try it. I normally don’t eat lamb much due to the smell even though it’s a very traditional meat used in my own Bengali cuisine, but this was superb, just something else really. I’ve honestly never had any lamb like this before, I just can’t work out how they’ve cooked this.”

Nikiforos explained later than the lamb was frozen before cooking, and then had a few other processes to go through in order attain it’s spit-roasted flavour. I would also say that the process made the lamb more subtle in taste which allowed the other flavours, such as the creamy carrot puree, to shine.

From a vegetarians point of view, of course I shouldn’t be in favour of eating things like this. But when you’re travelling with a non-vegetarian things aren’t so simple and you sometimes have to make compromises because of the trouble of finding a restaurant to suit you both. Often I eat meat though and think, oh, that just wasn’t worth it. There was little taste, it was all texture, and that little taste is no reason at all for that animal to have died, it’s just lazy thinking or cooking that brought about this dish.

But in this dish I have to be honest and say that there’s a very special taste and texture experience to be had from eating it, so I can see why people might fall in love with it, and with the link to the spiritual festival of Easter I don’t think it’ll be served to you flippantly, and you certainly don’t have to eat it without giving a little thought of the life that gave you this great pleasure. For a great pleasure it most certainly is. Thanks little lamb.

So, our Cretan pie had been a nod to the islands of Greece, the calamari represented the oceans surrounding the capital and the lamb spoke of the countries’ spiritual side. With every dish there’d been attention paid not only to how it tasted or how it fitted into Greek national identity but also to how it pleased our sense of smell and sight as well as our taste buds. What was to come next? We were excited. A good restaurant gets us like that…

“Here you have thick pasta with braised oxtail, shiitake mushrooms and béchamel sauce,” explained our waiter, placing our plates at a specific angle so that we might best enjoy the visual treat of the dish. To accompany it we had a smooth red wine from Macedonia in northern Greece.

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Now, the only time we’ve had béchamel sauce before in Athens was in the more traditional dish called moussaka, and this definitely wasn’t that.

“I feel this dish is a perfect autumn/winter match,” said Lamia. “The range of textures is fulfilling, from the al dente pasta to the soft braised meat and similar softness of the Shiitake mushrooms to the even softer béchamel. It’s very homely.” Lamia was right. It was a very rich dish that warmed you almost like a stew. And although this was nothing like a stew I felt that it had the soul and warmth of something home-cooked that mum would make. Perhaps it’s the béchamel or perhaps the thick pasta or maybe even the soft oxtail, but whatever it was, it made for a very comforting dish.

After we’d eaten Nikiforos explained that this was a very traditional dish that holds a special memory for most Greeks.

“It’s something their mother would cook them, we’d all have our own memories of eating this at home.” It was a triumph for the chef that we didn’t know the history behind this dish yet we tasted the concept and understood. During the previous few months we’ve been privileged to stand before many fine artists whilst on our travels – Michelangelo, Raphael, Pericles and also lesser known figures such as Aldo of Fior di Luna in Rome and here we were again, in the presence of greatness. Credit where it’s due, Gikas Xenakis, the chef at Aleria, has attained the status of true artist in the way he’s able to portray emotions, history and tradition through the dishes he’s created.

At this point the waiters began pointing out a slight step as we moved from restaurant to toilet. This was considerate, considering the excellent wine pairing it was only reasonable to assume there might be some stumbling going on at this point in the evening.

“For dessert we have halva mousse with caramelised nuts, pistachios peanuts,” said our waiter, “paired with a sweet wine, a Mescato from Samos.”

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The citron mousse was a cool hit and the soft halva mousse was such a departure from the normal halva yet it still retained it’s core characteristic, nutty traits. Everything came alive at once yet nothing was overwhelming, this was the dessert of a confident chef who wasn’t looking to make up for earlier possible deficiencies with a fireworks display. No, it felt more like the chef was working towards the end of a fantastic story that had begun at the front door and was reaching a finale that we couldn’t yet anticipate.

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We finished with mastica digestifs in the garden.

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Mastica, I love it. The taste of the island of Chios – supposedly the only place it can grow – first and then of Greece. A perfect way to end the meal.

I have to qualify whatever I’ve said in this article by saying that that we feel every description that we make about the Aleria experience is going to be inadequate. The chef has said all that can be said within the dishes and words or pictures just do not do them justice, all you can really do is go to Athens and eat there and experience the atmosphere of this true fine dining restaurant. Whatever level of dining you’re used to you will not be disappointed, we’re certain.

The Aleria is one of the only restaurants we’ve eaten at that we’d consider making a special trip overseas for, perhaps to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or some other special occasion. We’d love them to put a vegetarian main course option on the menu as Greece does have some amazing  traditional vegetarian meals, so hopefully they’ll do that sometime soon and become even more of an attraction for us. The service is understated yet attentive, delivered by genuine people who understand hospitality, and the dishes are creative, visually exciting, delicious and the sort of food you’ll not be eating at home (unless you’ve got a talented and intelligent cook in the house, in which case, we’re open for dinner invites!). It’s also cracking value (around £50 for a four course menu plus paired wine each, which is amazing considering the Michelin Star quality; you’ll be paying four or five times this amount each for similar food in Rome, Paris or London); pay them a visit, you won’t regret it.

Discover more at http://www.aleria.gr/en

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