Greek winery tour: day one

[Hover over pics for captions and credits; click to embiggen.]


Our plane landed at 7:30 a.m., so we had a few hours to kill before we could check into our hotel. We were met at the airport by the owner-winemaker of the first winery on our tour, Vassilis Papagiannakos, who led us to a couple of his vineyards in Markopoulo, just southeast of the airport. Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by fig trees, pistachio trees and grape vines, cicadas droning in the background.

Even early in the day, the temperature was warm and rising fast. In this part of Greece, the weather in the summer varies little from day to day: sunny, hot (mid to upper 30s), dry and very breezy. The wind is sun-driven and so is strongest in high afternoon and dies after sundown.

Aleppo pines and Agiorgitiko vines (photo: E. Lebel/oenopole)In one of the vineyards was a small chapel built in the 11th century using stones recycled from far older buildings, including maybe an ancient temple or two. Nearby, a low slope was crested by magnificent, centuries-old Aleppo pines, broader than they are high – bordering on umbrella-shaped, in fact – with coarse ridged bark and long, not very fragrant needles. The resin from the species is considered the best for retsina production.

“You see those fig trees,” said Vassilis, pointing to a large orchard across the narrow country road. “In a few weeks, you’ll be able to buy the fruit in Montreal. The farmer has a near monopoly on supplying Greek figs to the vendors at the Jean Talon Market.”

We were soon back in the van, on our way to Porto Rafti. We passed though Markopoulo’s town centre, with its attractive square and cafés with outdoor seating. In contrast, the outskirts along the highway were a little suburban blightish: a broken string of small strip malls and small businesses with parking in front, rendered less jarring and incoherent than their North American counterparts by the low level of flashiness and the buildings’ similar architecture. The amount of English on business names, signs and billboards was surprising, especially to someone from Quebec. There were also a large number of shuttered stores and abandoned buildings and construction sites – a direct result, I was told, of the Euro crisis.

Our first night was spent at Sea Sight Boutique Hotel in Porto Rafti on the Aegean coast, today mainly a resort town for Athenians. The hotel proper is located on the inland side of a small, two-lane highway that parallels the shore. On the sea side is an open-air pavilion with a bar and dining tables, a rocky beach covered with imported sand, lounge chairs, palm leaf umbrellas and the beautiful Aegean, turquoise at the shore, teal and navy blue farther out. Sea Sight Boutique Hotel, Porto Rafti (photo: Theo Diamantis)Steep-sloped capes on both sides of the bay frame the view; just around the north cape is where the ancient Greeks assembled to launch their attack on Troy.

The beaches here are open to the public. That being said, if you install yourself on one of the loungers or the sand, you’re expected to buy a drink or snack from the bar. The swimming was splendid though the waves and floor – covered with sharp-edged rocks – made entering and leaving the water a challenge. A tip: wear flip-flops on your way in and out, remove and slip them under the waistband of your swimsuit once in.

Sea Sight is a small hotel and some of the rooms do indeed look out over the bay, though mine didn’t. The staircase and doors to the suites are outdoors and all rooms have private patios or balconies. Furniture and fittings are modern and stylish if, in places, a little worn. The beds are comfortable, temperature control is individual and, in July, the air-conditioning is welcome. My efficiently designed bathroom was fitted with a deep Jacuzzi-style tub and handheld shower wand. The staff speak English and are friendly and helpful.

Lunch in the beachside pavilion was a fine affair: a selection of meze, including octopus, sea urchins, Greek salad, expertly fried zucchini and eggplant, tiny shrimp and larger prawns, followed by impeccably fresh, impeccably grilled fish with vleeta on the side, all watered with Papagiannakos whites. Fresh watermelon and peaches were offered for dessert. An espresso from the beach bar was expertly pulled.

We were given the afternoon off to swim, bathe and nap, and told to assemble at 6 p.m. As a result, and despite hardly sleeping on the plane, jet lag was not an issue.

At the appointed hour, we piled into the van and headed to the architecturally stunning Papagiannakos winery on the outskirts of Porto Rafti for a tour and formal tasting, the details of which which will be found on Brett happens.

Afterwards we travelled around 10 km south-southwest to the old-town section of the village of Kouvaras for a memorable dinner on the streetside terrace of Gavrilis Taverna (Γαβριλης Ταβερνα), a butcher shop cum restaurant, where you pick your meat at the counter and they cook it to order. The dishes began arriving within minutes of our sitting down: tzatziki, tirokafteri, whole wheat bread and Greek salad with delicious feta on the side, all an ideal match for the excellent Papagiannakos retsina. There then appeared a platter of lamb pluck (offal, including lung) that had been chopped, tossed with flour and fried in local olive oil – a dish that conquered the resistance of even the most squeamish among us – followed by grilled “mother of lamb” (mutton) and Greek-cut lamb chops (some of the best I’ve eaten anywhere, Greek-cut or not) with sides of almira and the first of several memorable encounters with genuine Greek fries (fairly thin potato wedges placed in a frying pan, covered with cold olive oil and heated, the initial cool-temperature cooking followed by medium-high browning acting like a one-step version of double frying). A sweet old dog was loitering in the street below the terrace; we tossed him a few bones. There followed terracotta pots of sheep’s milk yogurt generously laced with very herbal local honey and studded with rehydrated raisins and chunks of quince. Plates of fresh watermelon – this part of Attica is a main source of the fruit in Greece – brought the meal to a close.

This family-run restaurant, not mentioned in any tourist guides I’ve seen, provided the perfect ending to our first day in Greece. Unpretentious and authentic, featuring top-quality local ingredients simply and knowingly prepared, served graciously with a minimum of fuss and eaten convivially outdoors on a balmy summer evening: the genius of Greek dining.

Markopoulo figs (photo: Theo Diamantis)



Larrys: a potential new favourite

A quick report on a quick, late-night visit to Larrys, the restaurant/wine bar that just opened in the small space on Fairmount East formerly occupied by Café Sardine and Bouchonné, among other predecessors.

Though the basic floor plan remains the same, the interior has been radically transformed. It’s brighter, arier and more modern – mid-centuryish even – but also less cozy and, as one member of our group pointed out, while the old decor gave the place an only-in-Montreal feel, the new one has none of that, could be in just about any city anywhere. Improvements include replacing the high banquette, tables and stools along the west wall with standard height versions and installing comfortable seating along the long edge of the L-shaped bar. Sound levels are bearable for once.

We were coming from a wine tasting and two of our group, pressed for time, went ahead of the rest of us. When we showed up, they were enjoying a bottle of hard-to-find Hill Farmstead beer. Their dishes hit the table as we sat down.

The early arrivers declared their food good but had a few nits to pick (the tomato sauce for the lamb-filled cabbage roll was said to be too sharp, for example). On the other hand, our dishes, all from the small plates side of the menu, were impeccable. The two tartares – beef (topped with a small egg yolk) and salmon – were cut by hand and more coarsely than is often the case, which, combined with the mild seasoning, let the main ingredient shine through, very welcome with meat and fish of such high quality. Accompanied by a creamy potato salad, the house-pickled herring fillets would have won raves at a Stockholm restaurant, while the pan-fried herring roe on toast with brown butter and capers was a knockout, a dish I’ve been jonesing for since the minute I finished it. A cheese plate consisting of two small slices of aged Louis d’Or was accompanied by a couple of hard biscuits and a fruit compote, both house-made.

Focused on natural wines and comprising a few dozen bottles, many of them affordable, the wine list is terrific. The servers are friendly, attentive and informed: ideal actually. Prices are reasonable. Divided three ways and including a bottle of a delicious, lightly oranged Italian white (the name escapes me) – but not the Ganevat Chardonnay generously offered by one member of the party – our light supper came to around $45 a person, including taxes but before tip.

If the quality of the cooking remains as high on subsequent visits, I can see Larrys becoming one of my favourite spots in town, especially for a late-night bite.

Why I’m probably not going back to the Opéra de Montréal anytime soon

Late last November, a friend and I attended an Opéra de Montréal performance of a favourite work, Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Soon afterward, the OdeM sent me an email asking for feedback and including a link to a website for the purpose. After answering a short, multiple-choice questionnaire, I took advantage of the comment box to file a short review and explain why, in this age of Met Live in HD simulcasts (which certainly aren’t without their issues), Opéramania screenings and plentiful DVDs/Blu-rays/downloads of superb productions, I probably won’t be a repeat customer in the foreseeable future. Here’s what I wrote:

For the most part, the staging was uninspired but inoffensive. However, sitting in a loge on the left side of the hall meant the entrance and steps to the palace, located far stage right, were invisible to us, and the director stupidly had a lot of the action take place there. Even Stage Direction 101 students are taught not to do this. The singers were fair, sometimes better, though the Klytemestra is in no way an actor. All in all, it was Nézet-Séguin’s night – a very lyrical, fundamentally romantic and ultimately convincing reading of the score, well supported by the orchestra. Unfortunately, the hall’s horrible acoustics made the sound qua sound hard to appreciate. Our loge was as close to being over the pit as it’s possible to get and the sound was muffled, unbalanced and never overwhelming (and in Elektra, of all operas, it should be overwhelming). Until such time as Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier is gutted, rebuilt and given credible, opera-friendly acoustics, I’ll find it hard to justify spending another $100 on a ticket. In other words, that “maybe” above [in response to a question asking whether I would attend again] would more accurately be “probably not.”

Never heard back from them. Not surprising I guess.

If you’re interested in watching a worthwhile performance of this milestone work, look for the recent Aix-en-Provence production – the last opera staged by Patrice Chéreau – on DVD and Blu-ray (to be more or less reprised at the Met and simulcast in local cinemas on April 30) or the peerless Götz Friedrich film with an all-star cast,  including Leonie Rysanek, Astrid Varnay, a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Strauss disciple Karl Böhm (and with, it’s rumoured, an uncredited Leonard Bernstein occasionally filling in for the ailing Böhm, who died soon after the filming was completed).

Top tool: RSVP Precision-Perforated Stainless Steel Five-Quart Colander

A colander is an essential part of any kitchen arsenal. I use one several times a week, sometimes several times a day. Over the years, I’ve probably owned a half dozen of them and this is the best by far. Like many of my favourite tools, it does only one job but does it supremely well.

What makes it great?

  • The many holes mean the liquid drains instantly and there are no areas where it pools.
  • The holes are small enough that even spaghettini and angel hair don’t escape. Ditto rice and Israeli couscous. There is some loss with quinoa, however, which is best drained in a fine-mesh strainer.
  • The five-quart size is perfect. As the holes go right up to the rim, so can whatever you pour into it. Unless you make, say, pasta for more than 10 people at a seating, it’s big enough.
  • Construction is first rate. Good gauge of steel – lightweight but sturdy. Welds are numerous and solid.
  • Stainless steel, so no rusting.
  • Both sides have been been polished after drilling, making it easy on the hands and sponge safe (no cheese grater effect as with some drilled or punched colanders).
  • Clean-up is easy. To my surprise, the holes don’t get clogged.
  • It’s broader than it’s deep, a good thing (faster draining, less crushing of soft ingredients).
  • It’s good looking. It could even serve as a fruit bowl or as classy headgear at pastafairan meet-ups.
  • It’s solid enough to withstand forceful pressing (for example, when you want to extract as much juice as possible from the solids of the stock you’ve made).

Any nits to pick?

  • The base could be higher (the liquid drains faster than the sink drain can handle, so the food may end up sitting in potentially contaminated water – though it’s easy enough to pour half the pot, let the liquid drain from the sink and then pour the rest).
  • I’d prefer that the handles and base be riveted on, not welded (not that they’ve loosened in four years of use).
  • It ain’t cheap (I paid a little under C$40 for mine four years ago).

I bought mine at an kitchen supply store in Ottawa, at the time the only place in Canada that stocked it. These days, it’s more widely available, including via, though I’ve not run across it in a Montreal store.

(Photo credit: Click to enlarge.)


Lannes & Pacifique

Located on Beaubien a few blocks east of St-Laurent and open for more than a year now, Lannes & Pacifique is the latest addition to the BYOB empirette that includes O’Thym in the Village and Le Smoking Vallée in Saint-Henri.

The dining space – open, squarish and well windowed – has a rustic feel. Op art wall coverings in orange, white and brown lend a ’60s mod vibe. A mix of low and high wooden tables line the walls while a couple of high circular numbers in the centre are meant for largish parties. As usual for Montreal restaurants these days, you won’t find many sound absorbing surfaces.

In contrast to L&P’s siblings, it feels like there’s a chef, not a line cook, in the kitchen. At its heart, the cuisine is market-driven Franco-Italian bistro fare, though British, Indian, Nordic and even Latin American influences abound. Flavours are bold. Ingredient combos are original and often work. The menu appears to change seasonally, with rather good risottos, a fish du jour and tartares (usually beef and salmon) being fixtures. Just about everything, including the bread, is made in house.

To its credit, the resto is tolerant of wine geekiness. The stemware is decent and plentiful. Ice buckets are readily provided (one for our white and one for our red on a sultry summer evening because, no, the place isn’t air-conditioned). The waiters even remark on some of the more unusual bottles they open.

While my three earlier experiences were generally positive, a late dinner on the last Friday in November was a disappointment. The $50 table d’hôte started well enough with sweet bay scallops, potato bread farl, bacon lardons, buttermilk and chives.

Served in a basket, the cake-like molasses bread would have been more appropriate for brunch, not that that stopped us from gobbling it up.

The table d’hôte includes a so-called trou normad. As at several other local BYOBs, it here takes the form of spirits-doused sherbet and it’s a gimmick I can do without (who wants dessert in the middle of the meal?). That said, L&P’s version – bracing and not very sweet – comes closer than most to working. In November, ours was a small ball of cranberry sherbet shivering in a generous shot of orange-infused vodka.

Cooked rare as ordered, the sliced “bavette” was beautifully plated, accompanied by savoy cabbage and smothered red onions with good skin-on Greek-style fries and a tasty pepper sauce on the side. Problem: the beef was some of the toughest I’ve encountered, a real chore to chew. What’s more, it didn’t look, feel or taste like bavette.

Our desserts went a way toward redeeming the experience: the buttermilk panna cotta with berries and the tartelette of dried fruits, nuts and brandy – a witty take on mincemeat pie – were first rate.

The noise levels were brutal. My companion and I were seated in what was possibly the least noisy spot in the resto, an alcove next to the entrance, and still had to yell to make ourselves heard. It wasn’t the soundtrack so much as the other patrons (the place was full) combined with the echo-chamber acoustic. The staff was apologetic and suggested that maybe a late dinner on one of the last Fridays before the holidays was not the best time to come. It’s true that several of the groups seemed to be inebriated office party types and that my quieter earlier visits were on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the spring, summer and early fall.

Assuming that was a blip, L&P will remain on my BYOB rotation, especially as I prefer the food, atmosphere and staff to those at higher-profile places like Le Quartier Général, though not Christophe and Le P’tit Plateau.