Varoulko is the first restaurant in Greece years ago to be awarded a Michelin star. The chef Lefteris Lazarou was raised preparing seafood with his father on a galley boat on the port of Piraeus. He has elevated local seafood with Greek ingredients and ingenious creativity. I have seen him in interviews on Greek TV and he also seems incredibly kind.
This restaurant has been highly recommended from my dear friend Maria, and I finally got to try it this summer on my birthday…and then again in September for my mother’s birthday. Yes, it is that good.
The second meal with my mother is the one I discuss below.
Varoulko, during warm or mildly cool months has outdoor seating in a modern setting with a view of the Acropolis lit in a warm golden-orange light. The servers are all warm, accommodating, and enthusiastic about the food.
The picture posted above is, I know, out of focus, but I love it. Maybe it evokes the dazzling, dizzying joy I had with each course. :) This was an amuse-bouche presented in an eggshell: a Tarama (fish-roe) Sabayon. Velvety, smooth, rich, with a subtle salty aftertaste.
Once seated, the manager or head server offers a 4 course tasting meal. However, you can choose to eat a-la-carte. Since I had been there before, I kept two new dishes that sounded great, and replaced the other two with ones I had my first time, that I wanted to have again. They were obliging. I also ordered a glass of Chablis.
This dish was an incredible first induction to the meal. Lump Crab Salad with carrots, red pepper and thin, sparse strands of seaweed, topped with a Mandarin-Lemon thick foam. It was not as mustard-y looking as it does in this picture. We were instructed by the server to mix the foam thoroughly with the crab before eating.
I wish I could transport the exclamation of mandarin and lemon aromas that emanated from this dish once mixed. This was an unexpected surprise that called to mind the idea behind this blog: Food Synaesthesia- the overlap of all senses for a transcendent experience. I know this may seem like a lot of hype for a seemingly simple dish, but it really was wonderful. I dreaded the sight of just a few bites left on the plate.
The dish that followed did not disappoint, but wasn’t awe-inspiring. Thin slices of Red Snapper in a Toast Crust with Eggplant Puree and Raspberry Sauce.
The fish was fresh and the toast crust was satisfyingly buttery and salty. The eggplant puree had a silky smooth texture. It was appropriately mild in flavor as a balance to the salty fish. There wasn’t much raspberry sauce on the plate to see how those flavors would meld. I enjoyed it and it was a good portion.
The third plate actually managed to out-do the experience of the crab! Langoustine Orzo Risotto. The Langoustine was tender, and the orzo risotto was creamy but firm instead of mushy. Each bite was just a firecracker of flavor. I will try as long as it takes to re-create this recipe at home! I kept asking them exactly what ingredients were in the dish, and they told me (other than the orzo and langoustine) that there was sweet Moschato wine, parmesan, and parsley. However, I’m sure that there was also a very strong langoustine or lobster stock involved as well.
Though the final dish did not out-do the Langoustine, it was beautiful, inventive, and with great flavor: Braided Fish with Fava Puree and Octopus Sauce. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the fish. Unacceptable, I know, but I can’t remember!
The braiding had a function beyond its beauty; it also created its own nice texture. The fava puree was creamy like silky mashed potatoes, but with the great bean taste. The octopus sauce really didnt taste like octopus, but was a nice almost syrupy tart-sweet flavor. My mother and I both really enjoyed this dish.
The desserts were equally impressive as the savory plates. The chocolate souffle with espresso sauce was nice and bitter (the more espresso drizzled, the more bitter it became) and I like my chocolate bitter! But the mint strawberry mille feuille stole the show. The layers were not puff pastry, but rather like a mint caramel crisp. The cream was vanilla infused and the strawberry syrup was definitely made from fresh wild strawberries as promised by the menu! Just excellent. The taste of mint was pronounced and paired with the strawberry wonderfully.
Some chefs like Thomas Keller prefer to offer many dishes that give you just a taste and leave you wanting more. I do enjoy this sometimes, and appreciate the experience. However, I loved that the portions at Varoulko were substantial. Though we had a five course meal, it was satisfying to have more than a few tastes of each dish to really relish in the flavors. And I still was left wanting more.
Here is a recipe from Mr. Lazarou from his book: Varoulko: Colors, Smells and Tastes
SEA URCHIN RISOTTO
(If you cant find enough sea urchin, mix in some regular fish roe)
1 cup diced yellow onion, 1/8” dice
1/4 cup olive oil
Freshly crushed white peppercorns
1 cup Arborio rice
4 – 5 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 – 3/4 cup fresh sea urchin roe, carefully cleaned of all spines and grit, divided
Sauté the onions, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly crushed white peppercorns, in olive oil until they soften and start to turn golden. Stir in the rice to completely coat it with oil and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine, and stir until it’s almost absorbed. Add 1/2 cup stock and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly, until the stock is almost absorbed. Continue adding stock, 1/2 cup at a time, and stirring while its absorbed, until the risotto is the consistency you desire; it should be moist and creamy, not dry. It takes about 18 – 20 minutes for the rice to cook.
When the rice is just done, stir in 1/4 cup sea urchin roe, and divide the risotto between 4 warmed plates. Make a shallow hollow in the center of each portion, and fill it with the remaining sea urchin roe, evenly divided.
It tastes like sea-butter, please don’t be afraid to try sea urchin!