April 8, 2007

Greece, day 2: enjoying the character of local food purveyors

So many factors come into play when you reflect on the quality or enjoyment of a meal. One of the things I appreciate most is when someone takes an extra moment to add just an extra bit of service to make a pleasant moment even better.

Our first night in Mykonos, we had dinner at Avra, a small, charming taverna along one of the myriad small streets in Hora. The food wasn't aything particularly special; but I'll remember the expert care with which our server removed the bones from Jay's fish and the way the owner visited each of the tables to make sure his diners were having a pleasant evening.

After that meal, we wandered into one of the local ice cream shops, where we tasted a delicious chocolate and cherry "cookie" ice cream. Even better than the ice cream, though, was how friendly the owner was to us, greeting us warmly and giving us generous tastes of countless flavors.

The next afternoon, we grabbed a gyro at a place that ended up being, by far, our favorite gyro joint in Hora; we also tried two other places in town, and it was no contest. Back at home, we're used to seeing gyros made with shavings from the nondescript "meatroll" rotating on the vertical rotisserie. Here, they use pork or chicken instead, and the rotisserie is stacked with actual pieces of meat, cooked until the exterior has a light crust of caramelized fat and seasonings.

The thing that made this gyro joint so much better than the others we tried was the care they took in putting together even this simple food item. The pita bread is toasted on the grill to order; the meat is shaved off the rotisserie steaming hot and placed in the pita with a generous slather of creamy tzatziki, juicy chunks of tomato, thinly sliced red onion, and a few french fries for good measure. Awesome.

In Greece, people celebrate the resurrection of Christ at midnight on Easter Sunday, and it's a huge celebration involving candle-lighting at church, firecrackers/fireworks (seriously!) and a huge meal commencing shortly after midnight. So in the early evening on Saturday, we noticed the town was quieting down as everyone was getting ready to congregate at the cathedral and feast afterwards. Probably because things had gotten so mellow, we were drawn to the lights of a baker's shop. When we peeked inside, we saw trays of roasted lamb coming out of their ovens, with the sweet smell of the seasoned meat wafting out of the bakery and filling the street outside with its perfume.

The bakers loaded several trays into the back of their mini-truck, no doubt a delivery for a huge midnight dinner party at someone's home. Other folks were also stopping by to pick up smaller portions of lamb for more intimate Easter dinners. You couldn't help but feel the importance of this meal to the residents of Hora.

We decided to make reservations at Phillipi's for the traditional Easter menu, to be served after midnight. To keep our hunger at bay until then, we stopped by a little tavern that caught our attention earlier because of the rustic wooden doors whose windows offered a glimpse of a group of older men drinking and smoking at the bar.

This intimate and uber-charming tavern was our favorite place in Mykonos. We had just a few small plates: rusk (grilled bread with spicy mykonian cheese, tomatoes marinated lightly in vinegar, and olives), sliced mushrooms sauteed with garlic and olive oil, and a soul-satisfying plate of fried zucchini balls. So simple, but so very delicious. And not another tourist in sight. Add a carafe of very drinkable house wine and some fantastic conversation, and it became difficult to pull ourselves away.

After the lighting of candles (and lots of explosions of firecrackers) at the cathedral, we finally partook of the 10-course traditional Easter dinner, which started at 12:30 a.m. A couple of the highlights in this flurry of food excess: we were able to try liver soup (very hearty), small intestine sausage (the small intestine is wrapped like a rope around a filling of chicken meat before it is roasted with a healthy amount of fat; the "sausage" gets a slightly elastic, smooth and gelatinous texture, making the whole thing taste more luxuriously fatty than it really is); and, of course, the roasted lamb, which was served with slices of perfectly cooked potato wedges that soaked up the excess juices from the lamb. Somehow, we rolled ourselves home at 4 a.m., completely defeated by the meal and in awe of how loud and festive Easter is in Greece.

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