April 9, 2007

Greece, day 3: new tastes

One of the best parts about traveling is having the opportunity to try new foods and flavors. While we were walking around town the night before, we came across a high end dessert shop called Mandarini that had opened just a couple of days before we arrived. The shop had been glowing like a beacon to us that night, so we came back today and got an assortment of different phyllo-based baklava-type desserts.

Our box included variations with different jams, candied fruit, chocolate, pistachio and walnuts. While the flavors were interesting (many of the treats were scented with rose water, and one of them had a sweetened cheese center), the honey water used to soak the phyllo was a bit too sweet, masking some of the more delicate underlying flavors. Can't complain too much though when you have a whole tray of pastries to mow through...

During our simple dinner at Taverna Nikos, we also had the opportunity to try some new things. We ordered a half-bottle of retsina, a traditional wine stored in barrels coated with resin (originally for waterproofing). The resulting wine has a distinctive, permeating resin flavor. I've had a Greek white wine with just the faintest hint of resin, which was interesting and very drinkable. This wine, however, had overpowering resin flavor. Think Pine Sol. Yep, that gnarly.

We also finally tried ouzo, an interestig anise and cardamom-flavored liqueur that bears a strong resemblance to pastis. And just like pastis, the clear ouzo turned cloudy upon the addition of a bit of ice water. I thought the ouzo was fantastic; a great way to start off a meal and get your appetite going.

For food, we shared several small plates, including fried cheese, fried tomato balls, and grilled octopus. The fried cheese, or saganaki, can pretty much appeal to anyone who appreciates warm cheese with a crispy exterior. La Verne recalls having a fried cheese dish that was set on fire at a Greek restaurant in New York, so we double checked... but this one was sans flames.

The fried tomato balls turned out to be a surprise hit. The fritter was similar to the zucchini balls we had the night before. The tomatoes had an intense, full-bodied flavor with a nice acidity that held up remarkably well to the frying. And the exterior of the fritter mainteined its crispiness, despite the water content of the tomato.

I was also a big fan of the octopus, which was simply grilled until the flesh became tender and the "suction cups" bore a nice little char. I've never had grilled octopus... I've only had it lightly blanched for nigiri (which, when done without the requisite attention, leads to incredibly chewy octopus). This was great octopus -- clean flavor, great mouth feel (not at all chewy... just lightly toothsome, substantial and satisfying), and nicely dressed with quality olive oil, lemon, and light herbs. At a younger age, I might have found the sight of the tentacle off-putting, but now I think it looks beautiul and appealing. You never know what kind of deliciousness you might be missing if you don't try it...

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