Digging into local Greek food
By Frank Whitman
With some restaurants, it’s easy to tell what they’re selling from the moment you walk in. At Mykonos Kouzina on Main Avenue in Norwalk it can only be Greek food. Even if you couldn’t tell from the name, the vibrant color scheme is unmistakable. Blue tables and chairs, blue cushions with white piping, zig-zag accent tiles that mimic the waves of the Aegean, and blue striped awnings all conjure up images of white stucco houses along an azure sea.
We’ve been exploring the food and culture for an upcoming trip to Greece. The restaurant was one stop on a tour of local establishments and media sources to get up-to-speed on what we might encounter. Once we started looking, there was a lot to learn – all of it delicious.
Diane Kochilas, with her hefty cookbook and four seasons of “My Greek Table” on public television (also on Prime), is a great explainer. She tours surprisingly diverse cities, country villages and islands meeting with local farmers, foragers, chefs and wine makers and cooks up a storm, blending her experiences with home kitchen demonstrations.
At Mykonos Kouzina we enjoyed dishes immediately recognizable from the Kochilas’ broadcasts. Mezedes, both hot and cold, are the tapas of Greek eating. Keftedakia ($14), tender meatballs, were bathed in a light tomato sauce and dotted with goat cheese. Stuffed Grape Leaves ($10), tender rice-filled packets, came with a Mediterranean lemon sauce. We
shared Avgolemono Soup, the Greek classic flavored with lemon and thickened with egg yolks.
The baked Whole Branzino Lavraki ($45) main course was more than enough for both of us. Baked with the Greek trinity of lemon, olive oil, and oregano, it was a classic presentation.
Steve’s Market in Norwalk is a great source for some of the distinctly Greek ingredients that are essential for home-cooking Kochilas’ recipes. Family owned for three generations, Phil Kydes and his daughter Kiki stock the authentic ingredients from Greece including olives, olive oils, and dried herbs necessary for authentic flavor. They also offer prepared foods
and catering. Not surprisingly, Christmas and Easter are busy times as the local Greek community stocks up for the traditional menus of the season. It’s the kind of long-standing establishment where regular customers get a welcoming kiss and a hug.
Largely vegetarian Greek food – heavy on the olive oil and herbs – promotes a long and healthy life. One episode takes Kochilas to the island of Ikaria where residents routinely live to be 100 or more. It’s the ultimate Mediterranean Diet. Not surprisingly, locally caught seafood is featured along the coast and on the islands. Happily, wine grapes also flourish.
Pontos Taverna on Isaac Street is another popular stop in Norwalk to eat Greek. Operated by the large and boisterous Kiriakidis family, it’s a favorite destination for Greek favorites. They offer a selection of wines from Greece that are fun to explore.
When we mentioned our interest, recommendations for other Greek restaurants popped up. It seems that there is plenty of Greek cuisine beyond diners if you ask around.
Kochilas’ destinations around Greece include: Laconin for kalamata olives; olive oil orchards, vineyards in Naoussa where the xinomavro grape makes a fine red wine; and sampling local specialties at famous islands including Santorini, Crete, and Corfu.
The cookbook, of the same name, is organized more traditionally by food categories, but there is a uniquely Greek touch. A whole chapter is devoted to dips, while another covers meze to share and yet another discusses ancient grains. Savory hand pies wrapped in phyllo or pita bread also get a chapter of their own.
The Mediterranean climate provides an abundance of vegetables that are the base of the cooking. Every recipe seems to start with red onions, fennel and eggplant or all three together. Fresh herbs including parsley, mint, chives, and oregano are added by the handful. It’s a boldly flavored cuisine.
Kochilas gives local fish, shellfish and octopus a thorough review. There’s even a chapter about wine, growing regions and unfamiliar grapes that may be hard to pronounce and even harder to spell as well as traditional grapes grown around the Med.
What’s your favorite Greek eatery? We’re looking forward to a food adventure in Greece. In the meantime, we’ll keep on exploring delicious local sources.