Food Under Financial Fire: Eatin’ in Athens

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It’s a rare day when I find myself on the road for work with neither headscarf nor flak jacket — but reporting on the Greek financial crisis was an excellent change of pace. Light clothes, sandals, tap water I could drink, street food I could eat… all without fear of dysentery or gunshots.

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I had many excellent dishes in Athens, including a high-end moussaka, rich with becamel sauce; an eggplant baked with tomatoes and feta at a local taverna, after picking and choosing from all their dishes lined up on the counter; and the ubiquitous, delicious-on-hot-summer-days coffee frappes, blended with sugar, cream and ice.

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But the place I would return to, if covering protests in Syntagma Square (or simply in town on vacation), is Tzitzikas & Mermigas, or “Cicada & Ant,” named for the Aesop’s fable about the ant’s hard work winning over the cicada’s loud frivolity. This restaurant, very popular with locals and packed at all hours of the day, is a great combination of the two. It’s packed with laughing, chatting guests and fun little extras like a free shot of raki and a plate of olives to start; but it takes its cooking very seriously, true to the classics and not afraid to put modern spins on old favorites.

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We ordered a bunch of dishes to share. Greek salad – always a winner – was fresh and bright with citrusy tang. Hand-rolled dolmadakia, using lettuce leaves instead of the typical grape leaves, were stuffed with vegetables, rice and herbs on a yogurt dressing and had absolutely nothing in common with the dense, cold versions I’ve stumbled upon here in London.

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Couscous with marinated salmon and fennel was as light as a Los Angeles lunch, each grain toothsome and nutty; and small pies stuffed with mizithra cheese and herbs would satisfy any dumpling fiend.  Sausage from Karpenisi is dark red, made with smoked paprika and grilled perfectly: juicy on the inside, but with that satisfying snap to the skin when you bite into it.

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One of the best dishes we tried was the fried cheese from Naxos, with melty gruyere-like cheese oozing from a salty-sweet crust of sesame and honey, served with a salty-salty side of bacon. Oh man. That dish. I will dream of that dish.

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Equally impressive was the bottle of retsina we ordered, from the Papagiannakos vineyard. Retsina is a typical Greek wine — over 2000 year old – that’s made in pine resin barrels, giving it a forest-y, almost turpentine-y taste that not everyone likes. This version, however, was lightly resinated, so you could taste the grapes and not wince as you sipped. At 6 euros a bottle, it was an amazing deal.

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We closed out our epic order with a pile of fries surrounded by meatballs rolled with fresh mint.  Had we been hungrier (or just simply piggier) we could have left the starter side of the menu and ventured into serious carnivore territory with lamb moussaka, pork fillet in wine sauce, chicken in pastry, or spicy marinated souvlakia grilled in back.

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There’s dessert, too, but next door is the best gelato counter in town, so take yourself next door if you can manage to fit anything else in your tummy.

You know the cicada would.

Tzitzikas & Mermigas
Mitropoleos 12 -14, South of Syntagma Square
Athens, Greece
www.tzitzikasmermigas.gr/en/

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