Opa! Greek Goes Chic

Now that Americans have mastered Italian, they're ready to embrace the next big cuisine to pique their palates from the sunny Mediterranean.

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The World’s First Fusion Cooking

Hippocrates’ legendary spiced wine recipe calls for cinnamon, cloves and allspice brought his way by Arab caravans. Being a hub and command center of world trade for centuries, Greece likely saw the beginning of fusion food. Greeks didn’t limit the use of aromatic spices to desserts, however. They infused them into their meat and macaroni dishes, for example pastitsio and moussaka, and into their sauces.

Turks took their turn to rule over this nation, too, adding raisins and almonds to the culture, along with the rose water that flavors baklava. Americans, in turn, have fused that tasty little sweet right onto dinner menus; in Greece, the delicate pastry is served primarily in coffee houses.

Socrates taught his students to question, to be open to new ideas. And that's what fusion cooking at its best is all about. (At worst, there's always hemlock.) Chef Theodore Kyriakou, in his Real Greek Food restaurant in London (and cookbook by the same name), uses his classy setting to showcase traditional peasant dishes from his childhood (and that of his great-great-grandmother) such as shrimp baked with feta and tomatoes, chicken stuffed with walnuts, and rabbit with avgolemono sauce.

James Botsakos, the chef who runs New York City’s trendy Molyvos with Rick Noonan, turns out what he calls a “progressive” rabbit stifado. “We take an extra step: We use stock fortified with both sweet wine and red wine, along with cinnamon, cloves and allspice. It’s the technique which is different,” he explains. “Another thing I’m doing that’s new is using kalamata vinegar, the next big thing. It’s made balsamico-style from dry-cured olives. I use it with thyme, Greek honey, oregano and extra-virgin olive oil to make a vinaigrette, a marinade, or a glaze.

“I use phyllo in both sweet and savory dishes,” Botsakos continues. “I wrap up boiled, shredded chicken but take it one step further, too. I confit the chicken first [cook it in its own fat], then store it with cooked leeks, onions, and fenugreek.”

Fenugreek! Isn’t this a spice straight out of India? “It was used by Greeks in ancient times,” the chef sets me straight. “It’s a spice people don’t associate with Greece, but we’re reintroducing it. Mix it with raisins, almonds, pea greens, popcorn shoots and mint along with the chicken, wrap it in phyllo, and serve with slaw—a very Greek thing. Take slaw and add capers, roasted peppers and endive, and elevate the idea of that salad.” He’s also playing around with ouzo-marinated barbecued ribs, glazed with a Greek fig glaze, “like a duck sauce.”

Evvia, the new, upscale Greek restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif., fuses the classics, too. A “Caprese” salad of tomatoes with barrel-aged feta, citrus salt and virgin olive oil; mussel stew with tomatoes, ouzo, garlic, and savory; wood-oven-roasted prawns with a lemon, caper and golden raisin dressing for starters, then an herb-grilled duck breast with black noodles, calamari, Kalamata olives and saffron sauce; or a Sonoma rabbit casserole with macaroni, myzithra-cheese béchamel and lemon carrots; or ravioli filled with chard and manouri cheese, served with braised artichokes, chanterelle mushrooms and avgolemono sauce.

At Kokkari, its San Francisco counterpart, guests can start on a salad of watermelon, arugula, feta and pine nuts, or razor clams steamed with ouzo and tomato. Then they proceed to a shellfish stew in saffron-ouzo broth, perhaps, and finish up with an almond and honey panna cotta or Greek yogurt served with spiced walnuts, fresh stone fruit and a drizzle of Greek Attiki honey.

In the mid-90s, there were said to be only three “serious” Greek restaurants in the country — Periyali in New York, Papagus in Chicago and Sofi’s Aegean Kitchen in Los Angeles. “Today, says Food & Wine magazine, “first-rate Greek restaurants are opening in New York faster than you can say ‘souvlaki’.” And in December’s Year in Review issue of Food Arts magazine, Greek cuisine was ranked “on the front burner.” The same article called mezedes “hot stuff.”

Making life easier for chefs, Krinos has recently introduced “ready to go” pre-buttered phyllo and new chocolate and graham Athens brand mini-phyllo shells. Its recipe book lists trendy items like prawns with prosciutto in phyllo with a papaya-tomato relish and even chimichangas with a phyllo wrap replacing the customary tortilla.

Jeanne Quan, president of Jeanne Quan Fine Food Marketing in Minneapolis and formerly involved with Mount Zigos and Peleponnese brands, is aware of the uptick. She was delighted to watch her former boss on TV, during a break in the Olympics, giving viewers a virtual tour of Greek cheese production. She notes that Peleponnese was the first distributor to import a variety of olives, “not just Kalamatas. Today you see olive bars in delis and supermarkets everywhere, and to see that variety now is second nature, just as with apples. Olives are now seen as a good flavor accent, not just eaten out of hand. And Greek olive oil is organic,” because the growers never had money for commercial fertilizers.

Fusion of this nature — removed from shouts of “Opa!” in blue-and-white tavernas and transferred to fancy digs for sophisticated diners, yet serving peasant dishes well-prepared — is a perfect demonstration of Greek food’s trendiness. Greek cuisine, once an oxymoron in Americans’ eyes, is not only here to stay, it’s decidedly on the increase. Says Quan, “Just as people learned about the regions of Italy, now it’s not just Greece, but the regions of Greece. It’s on the cusp.” Get ready.

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