April 7, 2007

Greece, day 1: fresh and simple

I once had an enjoyable lunch at Milos Estiatario in New York, an extravagant experience in the splendor of fresh seafood. Everything in the restaurant was immaculate, from the pure white walls to the inspiring displays of pristine, fresh seafood on ice. I had an exquisite sea bass, grilled and dressed simply with olive oil and lemon. I always wondered how much of that environment was truly part of the quintessential Greek experience, and how much was just a luxurious New York reinterpretation of a specific culinary experience.

Fast forward five years and we're sitting in a spectacular seaside setting at the Sea Satin Market restaurant in Mykonos, and I'm ready to find the answer to my question. The restaurant is exactly what you imagine of a coastal Greek restaurant, perched right at the water's edge under the shadows of the Mykonos windmills, filled with with gleaming white tables and simple bottles of oil and vinegar as perfect color accents.

We were drawn to the restaurant by its scenic location and its equally beautiful display of fresh seafood on ice, including snapper, lobsters, and langoustines that were larger than my hand. We started with an outrageously good tzatziki, a pillow of creamy goodness made with unctuously thick greek yogurt drizzled with olive oil and served with toasted bread, bell pepper slices and olives.

We also dove into a refreshing greek salad, served with a wedge of slightly sharp, rich myconian feta cheese. It's interesting to see how much your mindset can impact your sense of taste and the overall experience of eating. I've had plenty of greek salads in the past, usually made with very good ingredients. But somehow, being on vacation in Greece, sitting at the waterfront in a beautiful restaurant on a gloriously sunny spring afternoon made the salad that much more special... a little crisper, fresher, and more satisfying in my mind's assessment. Sometimes, I suppose, it's okay to let go of objectivity and just enjoy the singularity of the moment.

We also enjoyed vegetables and calamari from the charcoal grill while sipping a Mantineia, a Greek white wine tasting like a cross between pinot grigio and viognier, with pronounced stone fruit and tropical notes, and a light edge of flinty minerality. The real centerpiece was our grilled snapper. One thing to be cautious of when ordering fresh fish in Greece is the price, which is always quoted by weight. We wanted to get a 1 to 1.5 kilo fish to share, which, at 80 euros/klio, was already pretty expensive. The only fish they had available was one at 600 grams and another at 2.5 kilos. Not wanting to spend close to $300 on one fish (no kidding!), we went with the smaller snapper, which was grilled whole, filleted, and served with a colorful assortment of vegetables, potatoes and olives.

I was struck most by the similarity in culinary values expressed in this meal with those we treasure back in California: the freshness of ingredients the the simplicity of preparation to highlight the best attributes of the food. And here, the little details -- like the olive oil's full-bodied richness balanced by its subtle grassiness, or the delicate crunch of fleur de sel on the grilled bread -- add even more enjoyment to the experience.

In the end, I have to give credit to Estiatorio Milos; the overall experience there was a pretty good rendition of the style, atmosphere and food of our first lunch in Mykonos... minus the awesome view of deep blue ocean, of course. Advantage, Mykonos.

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