There are three restaurants in Athens with a Michelin star, and based on my reading, only one of them, Varoulko, sounded like it served Greek food – or at least non-French food. So that’s where Jon and I headed one night.
Three things we learned from eating at Varoulko:
1. Greeks eat late. Not Spanish late, but late such that nobody shows up at a restaurant until 10 pm, at earliest, so don’t be the losers (us) who show up at 9:30 pm wondering why the restaurant is totally empty.
2. Tip is included in menu prices (though you should add a little extra if you’re happy with service). Don’t be the clueless, seemingly-deep-pocketed tourists (us) and assume you’re still supposed to add a 15-20% tip.
3. At Varoulko, there’s no physical menu, but it turns out you’re still ordering a la carte. Basically, you’re at a restaurant where everything offered verbally by your waiter is the special of the day, and you won’t know how much anything costs unless you ask. Having never encountered this system before at a restaurant (and we’ve eaten our share of meals out), Jon and I assumed that in the absence of any menu, we were working on a prix fixe tasting menu basis. So when our waiter described a soup and four other courses, Jon and I imagined small, tasting menu-sized portions.
Now, while I consider myself a big eater, it was a real struggle to eat four appetizers, a main course and a dessert in a la carte portions, and I’m still intensely annoyed that our server never mentioned that each of the items he was suggesting would be sized and priced a la carte (appetizers: 10-20 euros each and main courses: 30 euros each). So we ended up with too much food and a tab (260 euros, including wine and our over-tipping stupidity) that was much higher than it had to be.
So if I owned Varoulko, I’d be handing guests a menu that describes how the whole ordering-pricing shebang works instead of leaving promotional literature from Johnny Walker Blue Label on all the tables (seriously, how lame). Or I’d be like other restaurants and offer a plain-old prix fixe tasting menu – then the chef still gets to be creative and the diners get a predictable price tag and reasonable portion sizes. Win-win, no?
Onto the food, then. It had its moments of glory. For example, the crayfish in a tomato-seafood broth (photo at top). The crayfish was juicy, sweet and tender, and the intense broth tasted like the sea without being overwhelmingly salty, the way bad bouillabaise can be. Now I can never go back to the tasteless crayfish sandwich at Pret again.
Jon’s favorite was the squid ink soup with fish cheeks, and I agree that the soup was one of the top dishes of our evening. First, I loved the presentation. I get psyched when a barista does the whole swirly-pattern thing in my coffee, so I was (irrationally) thrilled to see said pattern in my soup. Second, and more importantly, the soup was rich and creamy from the squid ink, while the fish cheeks added texture and meatiness.
The calamari “spaghetti” with pesto on a bed of fried potato crumbs (they could be Ruffles potato chip crumbs, really) was a nice idea. Visually interesting, and I can see how sweet, tender calamari could taste delicious with the garlicky-cheesy-basily goodness of pesto, but the execution ruined it. Enough of the calamari was tough and rubbery such that those bad bits ruined the whole dish. It only takes one rotten apple . . . .
Sea bass carpaccio and the “main course” of grilled trout fillets in a porcini sauce were seriously eh. I blame my reaction partly on the fact that I couldn’t eat anymore by the time they showed up. So let’s start with the portion size. Even if the carpaccio had been out of this world (which it wasn’t), I didn’t need three entire slices of the fillet, and the zucchini wasn’t crunchy enough to add texture, so why was it on the plate? The grilled trout fillet portion was even more overwhelming. Again, three fillets on the plate, drowning in a brownish, creamy porcini sauce. The fillets were a little rubbery, and the earthy, heavy porcini sauce killed off whatever delicacy the trout fillet might have had.
Despite my stuffed crankiness, I enjoyed the restaurant’s dressed-up version of kataifi with pistachio ice cream, even if it did look a little scary. (My two cents’ – desserts should not look like they have tentacles).
Overall, our meal at Varoulka could’ve been a great experience if we’d ordered just half the food (the good half) and hadn’t felt like we’d been snookered into ordering what appeared to be the entire a la carte menu that evening.