WHAT: Vassilenas claims to be Athens’ oldest restaurant opening its doors in 1920 and introducing a degustation menu as early as 1928. Serving traditional Greek food, seafood and no meat, it comprised only three tables in 1920, owned by Istanbul-born Thanasis Vassilenas. It quickly morphed into an established taverna. Among the rich and famous to have a meal were Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth and Winston Churchill. The restaurant proudly displays autographs and historic photographs of celebrity diners throughout the decades.
VIBE: Vassilenas has moved with the times and today its menu could be described as New Greek food – a fusion of Mediterranean and elegant European with a touch of Asian, including some meat dishes along with the seafood. Despite the cultural overlaps, the flavours are sophisticated and finely balanced. It’s still owned by the Vassilenas family. The evening we visit is the last for summer al fresco dining before the restaurant moves indoors to its spacious winter dining room with a smart, contemporary decor. There’s four of us – Michael, Janet, Georgia and me. We girls meet over the hill for a post-sunset cocktail at the Greek Yacht Club’s rooftop bar in Microlimano, before heading down to join Michael at Vassilenas on the corner of a dimly lit, unimposing street near the congested port of Piraeus. The seating is well laid out compared to many Greek eateries where you’re jostling elbows and practically eating communally. Pergolas and plants at Vassilenas detract nicely from neighbouring apartment buildings shadowing the building.
FOOD: Prices are astonishingly good value for money. The 10-course degustation is only 35 euros per person, excluding drinks. Appetizers at Vassilenas include fish roe cream served with crispy Arabic bread, fava beans pureed and served with raisins, caper and ginger chutney, kaftityri (or cheese whipped with hot peppers) and a traditional Greek salad that looks like nothing like it but tastes like one with a dramatic twist: It’s topped with fetta ice cream. The other salad flavours are sweet tomatoes and peppers, crisp cucumbers, fresh dill, capers and olives.
New Greek food
Main courses include codfish fillets tempura with beetroot and aoili, grilled herring on a bed of tasty black beans and dill, and seafood orzo pasta with a generous layer of fat, juicy prawns infused with the famous Kozani saffron. I think this dish is an absolute knockout.
The dessert menu is small but perfectly formed so no complaints here. We order them all: Dark chocolate mousse with fruit sorbets, baked cheesecake with pineapple and mango sauce; fruit salad with lemongrass and mint and a lemon sorbet, and mille feuille baked with honey and cinnamon, cream cheese and pastry cream flavoured with mastic and saffron served in a citrus sauce.
Michael has been choosing the wines this evening, including a standout crisp Hadzidakis Santorini Assyrtiko 2013. After the meal, he selects an aged tsipouro from the Costa Navarino vineyards on the Peleponnese. Tsipouro has evolved from being village firewater with a kick like a mule, to a chic urban tipple. After wine is made, the grape skins are distilled twice and tsipouro is born. The new fad is to age the tsipouro in oak whiskey barrels for at least five years. Serve chilled during summer, and warm the cockles of your heart in winter. It’s 43% proof so you have been warned.
Checklist for Vassilenas:
- 72 Atolikou Street, Piraeus 185 45
- Tel: 210 4216457
- Payment: Mastercard, Visa, cash
- Mon-Sat 7pm-midnight and Sun for lunch 1.30pm-5pm.
- No wheelchair access for summer dining on the terrace which is on the top floor via stairs.