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Restaurant Varoulko*, Piraios (Athens)

Varoulko is the first Greek restaurant ever having been awarded a Michelin star (in 2002). Chef Lefteris Lazarou is renowned for creating and reinventing Greek fish dishes on a very high level.
The restaurant is located on the Piraios road where several bouzoukia are located.
The restaurant building and its interior have elements which remind the design of a boat, like wooden walls or scuttles. It is quite modern on the inside and the spacious dining room is built so that every table is well spaced and the guests can concentrate on the most important: the food.
The first impression is very positive as the service crew is friendly and appears experienced.
The waiter explained us that at Varoulko there is no menu. The chef would make us some suggestions and we could switch some dishes if we wish alternatives. The proposed menu sounded very good, since it also included the 2 signature dishes of the restaurant we had heard of before, but honestly, since we’re not informed well about the other specialties of the chef, we couldn’t think of any alternative we could have asked for. So we sticked to the 5 course proposal of our friendly waiter.
Then the very qualified sommeliere explained us in a very precise manner her wine recommendations for our menu. She suggested a wine from Santorin made from a Greek autochthon grape called Assirtiko, it would have a nice mineral earthy note which would go well with the truffle sauce we would have in one of the main dishes of the menu.
The pleading was convincing and we chose not to look at the wine menu ourselves and took the 2004 Sigalas Assirtiko from Santorin.
We were now ready for our menu to start and patiently nibbling at the olives and the bread with olive oil which were standing on our table. We were curious what kind of amuse the cooks would prepare for us. And we didn’t have to wait long. But to our surprise the dinner directly started with the first course of the menu. It was one of the signature dishes, the ink soup with grouper cheeks. It was a black soup coloured with sepia ink. It tasted delicious. The flavour was quite original and I think I couldn’t describe it, and it was also the first time I had liquid sepia ink. The consistency and texture of the soup were nice and creamy, and the tender bits of grouper in it had a mild, slightly sweet taste which marked light contrasts to the soup every time you would bite on one. Also some crunchiness was added to the soup in the form of fine stripes of white asparagus. You couldn’t have enough of the soup although the portion was quite generous. The next course was fried anchovies with oregano. They tasted tender and sweet, probably marinated in a tomato sauce, they also had a zesty lemon flavour and the oregano was enclosed with perfect dosage, not too few, not to overwhelming. But here again, we had at least 12 little anchovy fillets on our plate, which is quite a big portion (don’t get me wrong, they tasted very good, but you have to leave some room for the other courses).
Next was the second signature dish in our menu simply called: “calamari with pesto on a bed of French fries”. This dish could also have been created by the illusionist Ferran Adria, I guess. The calamaris were cut in fine stripes and had the shape of curled noodles. Presented with the pesto sauce, it really had the look of a pasta dish. And the great thing is it also tasted delicious. The calamari had a soft consistency, softer than pasta al dente, and tasted indescribably good; the pesto was mild, not harsh and went perfectly well with the calamari. The French fries were actually a nest of very thin crisp potato, like angels hair and gave the dish crunchiness which contrasted with the consistency of the calamari. It was an amazing dish. The best calamari I ever had and I doubt that I will ever taste a better one. This is truly a signature dish made to last and to be remembered.
At this stage of the dinner also came the point were the hunger slowly disappeared and you could only count on your appetite for eating more delicacies.
Our fourth course was the reinvention of a Greek dish called peinerli, which is usually something like a filled calzone pizza served in snack places. Lefteris Lazarou’s interpretation of the dish was a pizza dough with the shape of a boat topped with grouper and truffle sauce. This dish had a little bit too much pizza dough in my opinion. Also one would have expected fresh truffle flakes grated over it. The dark sauce had only small bits of truffle in it and had an earthy truffle aroma, but one could also suspect some mushrooms in it for magnifying the taste. The filling tasted nice anyway and accordant to what the sommeliere promised the earthiness and minerality of our Assirtiko wine matched very well with the truffle aromas of the sauce. The wine was furthermore very dry, with a nice acidity. It only had a light fruitiness and a very special discreet iodine note which is apparently typical for the Assirtiko variety. The wine accompanied very well all other dishes and was a nice discovery for my palate used to more western grape varieties.
At this stage we weren’t hungry at all anymore, but the fifth course was still to be served. We had a only a little pause when the waiter arrived and presented us a huge slice of grouper fresh out of the oven, he took it with him again to put it on the plates and we were served 2 big steaks of grouper each. The accompanying sauce was based on carrots and white wine. It was a tasty creation but we were so full at this stage that the grouper couldn’t mark another highlight to our dinner. And I would say that after having the ink soup and calamari, even if we were still hungry, it would have been difficult for any dish to keep up with it. But honestly this is a challenge a top gourmet restaurant has to master, so maybe it is a little disappointing that the fourth and fifth courses could not keep the pace.
Also it was too bad that the portions were so big. I have never had such portions in a gourmet restaurant before. I was told that the desserts should be succulent, but there was just no room left for it unfortunately. My humble recommendation would be to reduce the size of each course and add some amuses in front or in between the courses. So here are one or two things which could be ameliorated on the way to the second Michelin star.
But I don’t want it to sound as if I draw a black tableau of Varoulko; the service was friendly and competent and this dinner was still one of the best fish dinners I ever had: the ink soup and calamari on there own are worth the visit to Varoulko. We left the restaurant with a great feeling of satisfaction and I would recommend any gourmet to go there and experience it himself.

Feb. 2008: There’s a great Varoulko review with pics on “An American in London” here. Mmmh, when I see these pics of the Calamari Pesto…

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  1. Alexis (guest) Said,

    Just found this interesting article about great Athenian chefs in the NYT:
    http://www.48therestaurant.com/site/press_link/new_york_times.htm

  2. teemu (guest) Said,

    I had a pleasure to eat at Varoulko yesterday, 3 September. The weather was fine, the table overlooked Acropolis – everything was set up for a nice evening with excellent sea food. But, the aftertaste was bitter, and not because of the espresso (which was good), but because of details which make the difference between a Greek place and a great place.

    We started well. The menu was built around day’s catch and included a cold crab salad with mandarine sauce, fried crusty sardine fillets with smoked aubergine mousse and a tiny dash of strawberry sauce, a risotto-like couscous cooked in pork stock with baby squid and a beef sauce (sounds strange, but was probably the very best course of the whole meal), a cod with black ravioli and lemon-egg sauce and as main a grilled red porgy (fagri) with green stewed vegetables and a tomato. We polished the meal off with a chocolate cream with caramel ice-cream (my wife) and chamomile induced sweet bavarois with sharp and refreshing lemon sorbet. Our wine was a reasonably priced Greek asyrtiko.

    The food was very good though not excellent. The main course remained a disappointment after the strong beginning, and the lemon sorbet in the dessert almost killed the delicate flavour of chamomile. However, this was minor. The problem was elsewhere.

    My wife’s crab salad had a surprisingly great amount of shell and other uncomestible parts. When asked for our comments after the first starter, we mentioned this and expressed our slight disappointment. Our criticism was well-received, a promise to pass our message to the kitchen and to the Chef was made by two of the head waiters and we left it at that waiting that the Chef would probably come to apologise and offer an excuse.

    The Chef did indeed arrive. He spent approximately 80 % of the time of our meal (2.5 hours) outside the kitchen amongst the clientele having no chance of controlling anything that came out of the kitchen. He even served to a few tables, those, where he obviously had friends and acquaintances. He did not have 30 seconds for us, even to briefly say good evening. Nor did he have to the majority of the tables. He was too busy sitting down with his friends.

    Our water glasses remained empty for minutes at a time – we had to ask for more. This caused the Sommelier to criticise the waiter behind our backs for not having paid attention to the tables. This was obviously very good per se, but we should not have witnessed that. Similarly we overheard the criticisms of the Chef to another waiter who did not serve us at another occasion. Our bread plates remained empty until we asked for more. And we waited 10 minutes for bread to arrive as it “had to be re-heated”, we were told.

    I could still disregard the water, the bread, the public lecturing – but I cannot disregard the way the second bottle of wine was served. I did not have a chance to check, taste and verify our second bottle of wine. Instead it was opened before I could see it and it was poured straight into my wife’s half full glass and to my old empty glass.

    Nor can I disregard the absence of the Chef at the time when we made our polite criticism. At the end of the meal, we even mentioned that we actually did wait for him to come and that we saw him dashing around the clients, but not sparing us a word (let alone promising us desserts for free or reduction of the price of our bill). It was disappointing. It was what can be expected from a flashy fashion restaurant, not from a restaurant which is supposedly at the top of its league.

    Varoulko and its Chef boast one Michelin star since 2002. While the food was close to being of that quality, the attention to the details was missing yesterday. Also the lack of will to correct or somehow compensate for mistakes was not what one expects from a restaurant of this reputation. For a meal which costs 300 euro for two people one can and should expect more.

  3. alexis2 Said,

    REPLY:
    Teemu,

    It’s really a pity when lots of details add up like this and leave a mixed impression in the end. But it is not only the food, but the experience as a whole which counts, and you were right to point out those flaws.
    Thanks for sharing your impressions, do you publish them in your own blog also?

    alex

  4. teemu (guest) Said,

    REPLY:
    Alex,

    No, I don’t have an own blog – I wrote a facebook note and sent it around to a few sites which I visit sometimes.

    It was a real pity. The Chef did pass his apologies through the waiters, but really how difficult would it have been during those two hours to pop to simply say hello? How hard would it have been to give me a clean glass to check the second wine. These problems are not acceptable in a one star restaurant. They must do better.

    Varoulko is a good restaurant, if not very good. It is not excellent, but they are in the top 3 in this town. If you want to eat excellent sea food, it is a must here. That’s why it felt so… well, hard to accept that they would miss something this obvious.

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