My five best meals in Greece and how I found them

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ATHENS, Greece -- Whether you love museums, beaches, antique shops or great hikes, this exotic Mediterranean country has it all. But if you really want to get to the heart of Greece, there's no better way than to focus a trip around food and eating.

The food culture of Greece is rich and complex and still wholeheartedly embraced by its people. Unfortunately, that no longer means that you can walk into any old taverna (the Greek term for casual restaurant) and have a life-changing meal. In fact, if you visit just any taverna too many times you're likely to leave Greece thinking that the food was plain and occasionally sloppy.

To find consistently good -- or often great -- food, you're going to have to do a little work, some in advance and some while traveling. But this is work worth doing.

In the weeks leading up to our trip last month, I pored over one of my favorite cookbooks, "The Glorious Food of Greece" by Diane Kochilas, which provides an incredible island-by-island survey of authentic Greek cuisine. While I knew there was no way I'd get a handle on the hundreds of types of cheese or the cuts of meat to look for where, it gave me a general sense of the kinds of cooking techniques and ingredients that were worth seeking out.

Web research can be helpful, because many food-loving travelers post recommendations and helpful information. But take all recommendations with the usual grain of salt and re-evaluate them once actually on the scene.

Consider which foods will be in season during your trip. In some cases you'll have to wait until you're in situ and visit the public market -- still a mainstay of most Greek towns.

Finally, trust your instincts. If a restaurant looks great, give it a try. Better to risk eating at a mediocre restaurant you found yourself than one recommended by a tour book. Here's a brief look at highlights of some of the best meals of my trip and how we found them.

CHRIAZOMENOS, Heraklion, Crete

A friend of my husband's was visiting her parents in Heraklion on the island of Crete for the summer, so she took us to see the archaeological ruins at Knossos and then to lunch at an authentic, quiet taverna that we would never have discovered on our own.

Each dish could inspire a full column, but for the sake of brevity, I'll skip over the goat cooked in a rich tomato sauce or the rabbit stew braised in onions and white wine, as well as the ubiquitous Greek salad and horta (boiled greens), which were all delicious.

Crete has a whole cuisine surrounding snails, and you'll see baskets of whichever type is in season in every market. Here they were baked with lots of olive oil and sprinkled with salt. Our friend showed us how to attack them, turning our forks upside down, slipping them inside the snail shell and sticking them into the body of the snail as far down as we could get. These snails were firm and salty-sweet, and each bite was bursting with the fresh, green flavors of the olive oil drizzled over them before they were cooked.

In Greece, cheese is often served with the main meal, usually without accompaniments. Mizithra, one of Crete's most famous cheeses, is soft, with a texture like a smoother ricotta. The smell is slightly pungent with a mild, lightly sweet flavor that makes it difficult to stop eating. At a later meal we got to try small pastry pies filled with sheep's milk Mizithra, fried, then covered in honey. The heat of the pies loosened the lemony honey, with the balanced sweetness of an artisanal product, into a sauce.

OVELISTERIO GRILL HOUSE, Greek Isle of Santorini

One thing you'll quickly discover about Greek food is that meals are at a much slower pace. If you're looking for something quicker, head to a souvlaki joint, the Greek equivalent of fast food but one that's worth sampling. You'll find spit-roasted chicken and pork, meat kebabs and a few salads. Thanks to Greece's earlier, extended summer, we found decent tomatoes wherever we went, and a cucumber and tomato salad was the perfect pairing to salty, smoky spit-roasted pork wrapped in a chewy, fluffy pita that bears as close a resemblance to American supermarket pita as processed cheese does to English farmhouse cheddar.

And, while you may have thought Pittsburgh had the patent on fries on a sandwich, every gyro pita is finished not just with a drizzle of incredibly luscious tzatziki made from yogurt, cucumber and garlic, but also with just a few french fries (in Greece, they're called fried potatoes).

1800, Santorini, www.oia-1800.com

The Slow Food emblem on the wall (a snail!) may have caught our eye, but it was the fascinating and creative menu that held our attention. 1800 is by no means my discovery -- it's in many a guidebook, we later noticed -- but without a view or an ultra-luxurious setting, chef and owner Giannis Zagelidis relies on his innovative and well-executed interpretations of classic Greek ingredients and flavor combinations to impress customers year after year.

Smoked white aubergine soup was served warm, not hot, but just a bit over room temperature. Although unusual, this temperature best revealed the full, smoky sweetness of the soup, whose rich flavors were balanced by a quenelle of thick, creamy yogurt and bright, perfumed pools of basil-infused oil.

Greek rooster seemed to be slow roasted, and while it wasn't extraordinarily tender (it is, after all, a rooster), it was intensely flavorful, like the distilled essence of the best chicken stock you've ever tasted. It was served on top of chewy, nutty bulgur in a brothy corn sauce and crowned with a glorious rosette of toasted, sweet layers of crispy phyllo dough scented with cinnamon and cloves.

O TZITZIKAS KI O MERMIGAS, Athens

Walking toward our hotel in the capital city, my husband and I separately took note of a relatively nondescript restaurant that looked immensely appealing. Though we couldn't put our feelings into words, we felt strongly that this was a restaurant worth visiting. O Tzitzikas has a modern and stylish interior. Paper tablecloths were decorated with bright graphic prints of copper pans and colorful vegetables. One wall was lined with shelves holding various foodstuffs from olive oils to preserves to bars of chocolate.

Small pumpkin flowers made miniature bowls for seasoned fluffy rice and were then pan-fried, so the flowers got crispy and just a bit oily. They were served on a platter surrounding a small pile of tangy sheep's-milk yogurt topped with handfuls of chopped dill.

Rabbit with sweet mustard, dill, potato and white cabbage could easily be served in Germany or the Alsace region of France, but according to the staff, it's a traditional dish from Northern Greece. The rabbit meat broke apart at the touch of a fork, revealing delicate pink flesh at the bone. Perfectly cooked, it was moist and lightly sweet, with just the tiniest hint of the flavor of wild game. There wasn't a shred of meat or cabbage, not even the skin of a potato, left on that plate when we were done.

SPONDI, Athens, www.spondi.gr

A Michelin two-star, Spondi was probably one of the least truly Greek restaurants we visited, since these types of restaurants exist in an essentially international community. But Athens is a cosmopolitan city, and Spondi is worth a visit. The techniques and presentations may be international, but at least a few of these dishes still remained centrally Greek.

At a lovely fish taverna on Mykonos, we'd had grilled sea bass with nothing but olive oil and lemon. Here, there was a celeriac-flavored sea bass tartar topped with a shaved ice sphere filled with herring caviar, and a small scoop of oyster sorbet.

Sea urchin was another evocative oceanic construct, its intense, briny flavors offset by a fennel puree, then topped with a foamy froth of sea urchin and yuzu and set within a bowl filled with strictly decorative sea weed.

Dessert, which is rarely the focus of the meal in Greece, was unforgettable. A lovely cylinder of dark chocolate mousse is gorgeously presented with bits of gold filigree, spun sugar and more. The mousse is paired with a perfect quenelle of tangerine sorbet, as well as a small glass beaker set in volcanic rock, filled with freshly squeezed tangerine juice.

Throughout Greece we'd enjoyed some of the very best Mandarin oranges and tangerines I'd ever tried, so full of flavor and complex perfumes, we couldn't stop eating them. Perhaps this small beaker of juice, playfully served in Santorinian lava, was intended as one final playful reminder that Spondi, too, has something to say about Greek food and about Greece.


Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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