There are two things I kept in mind while writing this text. One, was that the Greek gastronomic scene keeps changing in a very fast pace. Whether you find yourself in Athens or in a Greek island, you will realise that there are a great many new ways to enjoy food. A constellation of talented, highly trained chefs, and knowledgeable restaurateurs, are changing everything, bringing you high quality food like never before. My second thought was that despite the admittedly tidal wave of changes, the essence of the Greek cuisine lies in its simplicity, the devotion in the importance of the cooking ingredients and the strict connection to the Greek landscape.
In Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, the Emperor offers an unparalleled description of the graces of Greek food:
Greece knew better about such things: her resin-steeped wine, her bread sprinkled with sesame seed, fish grilled at the very edge of the sea and unevenly blackened by the fire, or seasoned here and there by the grit of sand, all satisfied the appetite alone without surrounding by too many complications this simplest of our joys. In the merest hole of a place in Aegina or Phaleron I have tasted food so fresh that it remained divinely clean despite the dirty fingers of the tavern waiter; its quantity, though modest, was nevertheless so satisfying that it seemed to contain in the most reduced form possible some essence of immortality. Likewise meat cooked at night after a hunt had that same almost sacramental quality, taking us far back to the primitive origins of the races of men.
Fish constitute an integral part of the Greek cuisine since antiquity. Until these days, both locals and visitors wonder which is the best place to eat fish. “Do they grill it well?” “Is it fresh from the sea?” “Did you try the taramosalata?” These are some of the great questions that tend to ‘torment’ us in times of great hunger. Everybody seems to be on a quest to locate the perfectly grilled fish, such as the one described by Emperor Hadrian in Yourcenar’s book. In Greece we are rather fortunate since there are some excellent fish restaurants, which honour the culinary art by serving unique dishes. One of those is my own favourite fish place, which I am more than happy to present for the benefit of our readers.
Take your time savouring this amazing dish. Start with the main body and keep nibbling till you get to the more interesting parts: the tail, collars, head, cheeks, all the little hidden treasures that most people tend to ignore (and only connoisseurs enjoy), that make for a great fish. Epicureans used to say that one must use their own two hands to fully enjoy fish. Well they were right.
Leaving it to others to talk about the flourishing new gastronomic scene, I take it upon myself to jot down a few words regarding a classic restaurant that has generously offered me many moments of gastronomical bliss. So, let’s take a walk to Piraeus and see what’s being served at Dourabeis’ Restaurant.
Don’t expect to be impressed by its decoration. The restaurant is simple in its interior, with its door-entrance to the kitchen being in a prominent spot. Lined up, under its shaded boardwalk, its restaurant tables surrounded by chairs made of wicker, are set with white tablecloths; a hallmark of another era when white tablecloths were not a luxury but a must. In this establishment with the clean-cut staff with the respectful manners, the client is always right. A swarm of waiters that swiftly patrols the sitting area, will serve you fast and courteously. Upon sitting you will be offered ice cold water, just to catch your breath before you place your order.
Restaurants serving fish, traditionally allow clients to have a quick glance before ordering the one they will eventually eat. The people at Dourabeis take extra pride in doing that, so if you wish to see the variety of fish and seafood available, a waiter will guide you to the refrigerators situated at the kitchen entrance and show you the day’s catch. If, however for any reason you don’t feel up doing that, feel free to trust your waiter or the menu. For me the onsite “inspection” of the haul is part of the experience, and I don’t think I’ve ever missed a chance to stand at Dourabeis’ kitchen door and take a sneak peek in the “treasures” hidden inside Sergios’ Dourabeis (the owner) refrigerators.
So what’s on the menu for you? As a starter, you will be offered a small cup of kakavia (the Greek version of fish soup). Proceed with a variety of shellfish, venus clams, wild oysters caught in the Greek seas and fresh sea urchin, brought to you in its juice sprinkled with a little extra virgin olive oil. You can enjoy it on a piece of crispy bread or simply eat it with a spoon by adding some lemon. Don’t miss out on trying the steamed mussels with a squeeze of lemon, olive oil and chili pepper, crayfish sashimi with just a drizzle of olive oil and its eggs on the side. And right about that time, the famous Dourabeis’ salad will be brought at your table. Very few restaurants in the world can boast about having a salad on their menu that is equally as famous as the house specialties.
And very few dishes in Greece have been replicated as often -usually unsuccessfully- as this salad. Finely chopped vegetables and herbs form a base, which is then crowned with crisp lettuce hearts, peeled tomatoes of exquisite quality, cherry tomatoes, radishes, pickled chili peppers, wild rocket leaves, two types of olives and other fresh greens that I’m told are carefully selected on a daily basis, as none of these ingredients stays fresh and crisp for more than 24 hours. As for the salad dressing, there is no mystery here. It’s just a simple vinaigrette and some salt. Honestly I could make the journey to Mikrolimano anytime, only to indulge myself with this dish. The salad is optimally accompanied by some great entrees among which, squid, fried whitebait with onion, their renowned fried crayfish, grilled octopus, grilled scallops with lemon sauce, grilled sardines, shrimps from Koilada in Argolida- when they are in season -small fried monkfish served with garlic sauce made with beetroot, the list varies according to the season.
At this point I think it’s time to proceed to the main reason that I love this restaurant, which is no other than its uniquely grilled fish. I won’t even bother to suggest what you should order, for the simple reason that any single treasure that the Aegean Sea has to offer is brought here first. Fresh gilt-head breams, groupers, red mullets and dentex. Whatever your heart desires will land on your table perfectly grilled. But what makes for a perfectly grilled fish? A salty and crispy skin, uniformly cooked, taken out of the fire only moments just before it starts to burn, capturing thus the magic of grilled food without the unpleasant taste of a dish being charred. Underneath the skin lies the plump and juicy meat of the fish, whose texture depends on the species used. Always tasty and succulent, one of the few flavours that cannot be masked, is that of fresh fish.
Take your time savouring this amazing dish. Start with the main body and keep nibbling till you get to the more interesting parts: the tail, collars, head, cheeks, all the little hidden treasures that most people tend to ignore (and only connoisseurs enjoy), that make for a great fish. Epicureans used to say that one must use their own two hands to fully enjoy fish. Well they were right. Some olive oil will also be brought to your table to season the fish, but I would suggest that you refrain from using it and taste this precious ambrosia without adding anything else.
I know I am stating the obvious when I say that the simpler the technique used to prepare a dish, the harder it is to be a success. At Dourabeis they know this only too well, and that is why the restaurant’s kitchen is built around a large elongated stove, on which they grill the fish. I had the honour to be granted access to their kitchen and get a glimpse of the cooks who insist on using old techniques that ensure incomparable quality. The stove’s cooking temperature is sky-high. The flames licking the cast iron construction ensure that the necessary temperature in order to perfectly cook the fish, is always attained. The fish are not put directly on the stove or a heavy grill that will tear their skin. Instead, they are placed in fish baskets, which on their turn are placed on the cast iron stove. I guess that’s why the skin of the fish isn’t torn before it arrives at your table intact and succulent.
On Sundays, the busiest day of the week, this stove may grill up to twenty large fish simultaneously. The expert cooks see that everything is executed to perfection, with the maximum accuracy, with no delay in your order whatsoever. Even the skillets are placed in specific holes of the stove allowing the fish to be fried in a way that only the naked flame can do. I stand in a remote corner of the kitchen, only for a short while – frankly as long as I can stand it- and watch these masters humbly apply their vast knowledge on how to treat a so sensitive and precious an ingredient such as fish. I keep thinking they should be the ones teaching at cooking schools. They are the ones who know what may go wrong in this delicate procedure; the ones that know better than anyone else how fire can accent or destroy the qualities of an ingredient.
The day of the photoshoot our photographer watched in terror the oldest griller in the kitchen lifting the hot grills from the stove with his bare hands. The heat for us visitors is unbearable, but apparently for the kitchen staff it’s just another day at work. Mistakenly thinking that this is a rare occasion, the photographer couldn’t help himself and shouted at the master griller “Careful, you’ll get burnt!” His answer encapsulates the mentality of the dedicated cooks working for Dourabeis “Son, I’ve been doing this job since I was sixteen and I’m almost seventy, so don’t worry about me.” It was in that moment that I thought that this man righteously deserves to be on the cover of Taverna’s first issue.
When things slow down a bit, Sergios Dourabeis recounted the story of the restaurant. It opened in the ‘30s, by his grandparents. Back then the sea licked its doorstep and Piraeus was a beautiful place, full of neoclassical houses. It started as a humble tavern serving fried fish and at some point it started to grow, but the big success came with Sergios’ father taking the reins of the business. He was the man who laid the foundations for this great restaurant. Sergios talks with great admiration about his father and for everything he achieved. A legendary restaurateur exceptionally gifted both inside and outside his kitchen, he was one of the first to roam Greece to discover the best ingredients and bring them in his restaurant. With loads of perseverance and ingenuity he managed to define what comes to mind when we think of a Greek fish tavern. Even if he has passed away, it must be said beyond any doubt, that his legacy is in very good hands. To Sergios the greatest reward comes in the form of the old clients returning, time and time again, expecting to taste the exact same food, at the same high quality.
So, would I trade the simple miracles of a restaurant such as this with something else? I would definitely give it a try, but for the reasons I described before I would most probably end up here again. To the crispy grilled fish skin, the juicy cheeks of a gilt-head bream, the wild Greek shellfish and the tender crayfish. As long as we’re in Greece, simplicity in food seems to be the only thing that truly matters.
Akti Dilaveri 29, Pireaus 185 33