Greek winery tour: day two

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A buffet breakfast was provided at the Sea Sight Boutique Hotel and, indeed, at most of the places we stayed. They nearly always featured a selection of juices, fresh fruit, cold cereals, yogurt, sweet rolls, bread, bacon, sausages and/or ham and spectacularly flavourful eggs. Vegetable dishes like baked beans and ratatouille also made regular appearances. With only one or two exceptions, the coffee was good and often excellent.

corinthcanalBreakfast consumed and bags packed, we climbed into the van. Our destination: the Peloponnese, where we’d spend the next three days. We skirted Athens and Piraeus and took highway E94 down the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, which connects the peninsula to the mainland. Just before reaching the Corinth canal, we left the E94, jogged west on highway 8 and crossed the canal on the Korinth bridge, parking in front of the south-end strip mall that houses the Canale Restaurant. We walked back onto the bridge for the magnificent if dizzying view of the narrow, steep-sided canal far below us. The mall was filled with tourist gewgaws but provided an ATM and facilities for a welcome pit stop. The coffee bar served a credible espresso too.

A short ride took us to Archaia Nemea, one of the four sites – along with Olympia, Delphi and Isthmia – of the Panhellenic Games of ancient Greece. It is also where Hercules completed the first of his 12 labours, killing the Nemean lion. Temple of Nemean ZeusBoth the Temple of Nemean Zeus, today with nine soaring (three-storey high) Doric columns, and the stadium of Nemea with its masses of oleander (used for athletes’ crowns), vaulted tunnel entrance (with 2,000-year-old graffiti), banked earth “bleachers” and sweeping view southward over the valley were places where time seemed suspended and the ancients not so distant, an impression no doubt enhanced by our being the only people present. The small archeological museum on the site is well worth a half hour of one’s time.

At Nemea we connected with Yannis Tselepos, our host winemaker for the day, and soon found ourselves in one of his prize vineyards, a hilltop parcel a stone’s throw from the Gaia Winery.

restaurant_kavosOur next stop was the town of Isthmia, on the Aegean coast just south of the canal’s east end. The destination: Kavos 1964 (Κάβος 1964), where we had one of the top meals of the trip. Situated seaside on a low bluff and shaded by tall trees, the restaurant’s outdoor tables, some under a pergola and others in the open air, overlook the clear turquoise water of Isthmia bay. Kavos specializes in local seafood and our feast included wild mussels, octopus, marinated white sardines, “white” (uncoloured) taramasalata, sea urchin roe, Greek salads with and without feta, sautéed gambas and a glorious platter of linguine with mussels, razor clams, roasted tomato, garlic and parsley. Dessert, which came after some of us took a quick dip in the bay, was fresh watermelon and cups of mastic ice cream topped with myrtle preserves. Tselepos sparkling and still whites made a fine accompaniment. The seafood was of a freshness Montrealers can only dream about and every dish was flawlessly prepared. A restaurant entirely worth the detour, especially as English and French are spoken.

We then headed south into the Arcadian highlands, driving past the Tselepos winery near Rizes to the tiny mountainside village of Ano Doliana, southeast of Tripoli. The landscape here is much greener than in Attica, with trees and undergrowth abounding. Actually, in one or two places the side of the road had been washed out by torrential rainfall a couple of days before.

Ano DolianaSitting in a forested natural amphitheatre at a little over 1,000 metres on the north slope of Mount Parnon, Ano Doliana is a magical place: a cluster of mostly old buildings, many of them stone, with steep, switchbacking cobblestone streets barely wide enough to admit our van. Ano Doliana was originally a summer village where locals living in Kato Doliana on the valley floor could escape the oppressive heat. Indeed, we found that, even in high summer, it was good to have a sweater or hoodie to don in the evening. These days, the village serves much the same function as before, though less for local valley dwellers than for visitors from Athens and other cities in search of a cool weekend retreat. On a Tuesday, the village was virtually deserted and I and two others in our party were the only guests at our inn.

That inn was the 1821 En Dolianis Boutique Hotel. The 1821 refers to the year of both the inn’s construction and the start of the Greek war of independence, which began in the Peleponnese, with nearby Tripoli being the first major city freed from Ottoman rule. A rectangular stone building that once served as the village’s primary school, the hotel has a large flagstone terrace at the entrance, a foyer with a soaring, wood-beamed ceiling and spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, several with thick stone walls, that, modern conveniences aside, transport you back to another era. The effect is both rustic and elegant. The bathrooms I saw had showers but no tubs, the rooms a four-poster bed with a comfortable, firm mattress, a desk, a small utility sink and a counter with a coffee maker. The valley-side rooms and terrace have valley views through the trees. What’s more, the village is exceedingly quiet, especially in the evening. As an escape from the hubbub of city life, you could hardly do better.

The rest of party stayed a short walk away in another old stone inn, Erasmion. All gave it thumbs-up, though to go by their descriptions, it was, building aside, a somewhat more typical modern hotel experience, albeit one that afforded an impressive view over the plain of Tripoli.

After settling in, we descended into the valley for a tour of the Tselepos Estate and a technical tasting of its wines, the notes for which are posted on Brett happens. Night was falling as we left the winery and climbed back into the mountains, ending up at a traditional taverna, To Dragoúni (Εστιατοριο Ψητοπωλειο Το Δραγούνι), several kilometres – along twisting mountain roads – from our inns but still within the boundaries of Ano Doliana. It was one of the only times we ate indoors, as the mountain air was too cool for al fresco dining. The fare included piperopita (similar to spanakopita but made with red peppers instead of spinach), zucchini omelette, Greek salad, a kind of porchetta (the restaurant’s specialty: salt-cured pork flavoured with citrus and roasted), more excellent Greek fries (these possibly cooked in local sunflower oil), sautéed greens (possibly foraged), house-made bread and, for dessert, honeydew melon, watermelon and a dense nut cake served with morello cherry preserves. Wines from Tselepos and other estates flowed. Down-to-earth, welcoming, authentic and, most importantly, delicious, this felt like another gem only locals know about.

It had been a long day and we were beat. We bid farewell to the Tseleposes and were soon in our beds, welcoming Hypnos’s embrace.



Greek winery tour: day one

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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)


Mavi is no more

Since I’ve not seen mention of it anywhere, since it’s not hipsteriffic or “hot” enough to be on Eater‘s radar and since it deserves not to pass in silence, I thought I’d mention it here: once one of the city’s best Portuguese grills, Rôtisserie Mavi in Côte-des-Neiges is no more. The space had been dark for about three weeks and emptied out for about two. Yesterday evening, the windows were papered over and a big À LOUER sign had been put up. The demise was gradual and began a couple of years ago after the restaurant moved to a new location.

Business was usually brisk at the original spot on Gatineau a block and a half north of Queen Mary. Maeve Haldane provided an excellent snapshot of it in a 2006 Hour review that, amazingly, is still online. Unfortunately, that building and several of its neighbours (including the one that housed Boucherie de Paris) were slated for demolition to make way for condos. Maria, Mavi’s driving force, started looking for a new venue – not an easy task, as all candidates had to have a charcoal-burning permit. As it turned out, the most appealing option was a short block north on Gatineau, a locale that had previously been an Iraqi restaurant (the owner actually referred to it as a Basra restaurant) called Aseel BBQ.

On paper it looked great: a relatively roomy open kitchen with a large charcoal grill, about twice the square footage as the old space, large windows and a paving stone terrace in front that was wide enough to hold a half dozen tables. Rent was higher than Maira was used to paying but she figured she could cover it with increased business. She signed a multi-year lease and applied for a liquor permit.

Imagine her horror when the RACJ announced they wouldn’t be granting a permit because the new locale wasn’t zoned as a restaurant but as a dépanneur. And not only did that mean she couldn’t serve booze, it meant she couldn’t have more than 12 diners in the restaurant at a time.

She appealed to the borough and went to several borough council meetings. At the one I attended, she took advantage of question period to ask the borough mayor, the now disgraced Michael Applebaum, if he would intervene. His response was in equal measures smarmy, dismissive and condescending. “I have been to your old restaurant,” he told her. “The best grilled chicken in Montreal. The best. But why are you complaining? That restaurant could barely hold a dozen people. Don’t tell me otherwise – I’ve been there.” (In fact, it could and often did hold nearly 40.) “If you want a restaurant permit, you’ll have to apply to have the building rezoned. It’s as simple as that.”

Except it wasn’t. A week or two later, the building’s owners and I accompanied Maria to a meeting with the mayor’s underlings at the borough offices on Décarie. The functionaries were cool and unhelpful. Despite there being a restaurant immediately next door to Mavi (Cracovie) and another one door up the street in the opposite direction (Il Galateo), the space was zoned as a dépanneur period. Maria’s only option would be to launch the rezoning process. After receiving her request, the borough would study the question, which among other things would entail hiring, at Maria’s expense, an outside firm to conduct a survey of neighbourhood residents. Then, assuming borough officials decided to allow the rezoning, announcements would be posted in the neighbourhood and made in various publications, again at Maria’s expense. If any residents formally objected, a referendum would be held, yet again at Maria’s expense. If the result was in her favour, the space would be rezoned. If not, it would remain a dépanneur and Maria would be out many thousands of dollars for naught.

As Mavi was a mom and pop operation run on a shoestring, this was as good as a no.

“But,” I objected, pulling out online reviews of Aseel BBQ and some Google Streetview shots that showed the resto’s sign, “the place has been a restaurant for several years. Aseel was halal so no alcohol was served but it was still a restaurant. It had a menu on big panels above the counter. It sold nothing but freshly prepared food for consumption on site or takeout. The owner even built a banquette along one of the walls.”

“Well, if we can establish prior use as a restaurant, you may have found a loophole,” one of the functionaries said. “Can I keep these documents,” he asked me. “We’ll get back to you,” he told Maria. They never did.

Alcohol sales are a profit centre for restaurants. They’re also a big draw. Without them, Mavi began its slow decline. Fewer and fewer patrons decided to dine there until, at the end, it was little more than a very spacious takeout counter staffed only by an increasingly tuckered-out Maria.

Last fall, I suggested to Maria that she turn the unused half of the restaurant into a Peluso-style beer store, something the neighbourhood sorely lacks. It would bring people into the space, people who might also be tempted to buy dinner to go with their six pack. And since she’d probably offer beer deliveries, she could again offer food deliveries, which she’d stopped doing before the move. Beer sales + increased food sales = profit, or so it seemed to me.

She found the idea interesting but by then it was too late. And so the city has lost one of its better Portuguese grills and the neighbourhood’s food options have shrunk even further. CDN used to be a top spot for home delivery, with options like Chinese, Greek, Haitian, Portuguese and even Uighur. Now it’s mostly pizza and shawarma.

RIP Mavi. And best of luck, Maria, wherever you are.

(Note: The above description of the exchanges with borough officials is based on my somewhat fuzzy memory and the associated quotes are summaries of what was said, not actual quotes of the discussions, which in the event were entirely in French.)

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.

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.