SYNTAGMA SQUARE
Mitropoleos 12 – 14
210/32.47.607

The true foodie’s cardinal rule: Never go to a restaurant too hungry and never, ever leave too full.

I violated both.

We’d been hearing buzz about Tzitzakis & Mermigas for awhile. Friends who work in the Parliament building say it’s their favorite long lunch, so we thought we’d better check it out.

It is a beautiful February afternoon, about 60F degrees in the shade, and we strolled across Syntagma Square to  Mitropoleos Street where, nestled among the modern buildings, a place reminiscent of my childhood invited us inside.

 

Six o’clock in the afternoon in Athens is too late for lunch and way too early for dinner. Sure, around Plaka you’ll find tourists dining at this hour, but it is very un-Greek so you can imagine our surprise when we saw that the restaurant was almost full with locals. A quick survey around the first floor dining room made it clear that these were not people there for coffee and dessert (that’s a Greek thing, eat dessert in the early afternoon and wait until 9-10 pm to eat dinner), and throughout our 3 hour stay, people – Athenians! – kept coming in, even at that odd time of the day.

The menu was traditional with a twist, it had old recipes from various parts of Greece, along with some interpretation using traditional regional ingredients.

The restaurant looks as if it were leftover from bygone years, shelves line the walls, stocked with dry goods, canned goods and spices, bulk drawers stuffed with dried peppers, beans and bay leaves, it is the quintessential Greek grocery, with the only departure from tradition being the modern wooden chairs. I was slightly disappointed not to have a traditional taverna chair, with the choice of two rungs, to rest my foot upon. Yet the creativity that shines through with touches like the old style flour sifters turned light fixtures and the giant flour emblem on the ceiling above the entrance let me forgive the missing footrest.

We were greeted by our waiter immediately, another pleasant surprise for Athens and brought over a dish of various types of olives and peppers along with two complimentary glasses of raki (one of the many grappa like drinks that are distilled from grape skins).

For years we have been on a quest for the melintzanosalata (roasted eggplant garlic spread). In fact, once we have determined that a restaurant doesn’t use mayonnaise in their eggplant salad, we always begin our meal with it. Unfortunately, the craze of late has been to add mayonnaise to the recipe, and it seems to not be limited to Greece, it occurs in Greek restaurants throughout the world, much to our dismay. Not here though.  

 

The eggplant was roasted and coarsely chopped with just the right amount of garlic and vinegar to dance on your taste buds, drizzled with quality olive oil and some chopped walnuts finished the taste with a slight crunch. When we looked for the silverware, the waiter noticed, smiled and said they were in the drawer of the table.  Another clever touch, it reminded me of my grandmother’s house in the village. That’s where she kept them!

 

We also ordered the pougakia and pitakia (notice the –akia ending in both words, that is diminutive ending meaning small) purses filled with creamy goat cheese and shrimp) and the pitakia, empanada like in shape, and filled with melted cheese. Both “little purses” were wrapped in a flaky dough and deep fried. And though they did look lovely, we decided we prefer our “pitas” baked, resulting in a dryer, less greasy taste allowing the flavors of the stuffing to take the prize.

 

We ordered a bottle of Antonopoulos red (a red blend of Mavrodafni, traditionally a sweet wine, but when the grape is picked early it has a wonderful rich buttery dry taste and Merlot,  €24). It was the perfect accompaniment for the dishes we ordered.

Next came the mussels in ouzo sauce. These were fresh local mussels, no shells, and a nice size serving for two as an appetizer. Mussels are another of my favorite “test” dishes for a restaurant and a chef. They are wonderful when fresh and out of clean waters and awful when they are past their prime or from dirty waters. If you ever had mussels you did not like, try them here, you will fall in love with them.

When we tasted the mussels the flavor of fennel was prominent, even though the description of the dish did not include fennel. This was my opportunity to meet the chef, Panagiotis, a man of great stature with a mustache and definitely at the top of his game. I asked him about the mussels and he told me they had not been able to get mussels for quite awhile, despite being a regular menu item. In fact, this was the first day they were serving them. He told me the “secret” recipe. Salt, pepper, garlic, ouzo, cream and parsley … such simple ingredients, such wonderful taste.

The bread was sourdough, with a heavy thick crust yet moist and chewy inside. Great for soaking up the tasty light cream ouzo sauce leftover once we had devoured our mussels.

We should have stopped there … but alas, we were lingering, enjoying the ambience, unrushed by our server, and as time passed we ordered more. Keftedes (from the Turkish word Kiofte, Greek meatballs), two kinds, one pan-fried and one in a tomato sauce (“tis giagias”, grandmother’s meatballs, a daring name in a country where no one cooks better than anyone’s grandmother). The pan fried keftedes came with fried potatoes (I do not dare call them French fries, because these were outstanding and I don’t want to give the impression that these were anything like you have tasted before). Cut into odd shaped cubes, roughly 1”X1” fried in olive oil until crisp on the outside and moist and soft on the inside). I have tried many potatoes, all around the world, from Peru, were potatoes are native, to the US to Europe. There is something special about the Greek potato. It is probably grown at a higher elevation turning much of its starch to sugar. This causes the potato to brown to a crisp on the outside, even when baked, and stay moist and soft on the inside.

 

The meat balls themselves were very round. I am used to them being slightly flattened (of course, my grandmother made them that way). They were crisp and hot on the outside, but disappointingly lukewarm on the inside. From our vantage point we could watch the kitchen as we ate and could see the two microwaves being used quite a bit to warm up dishes. Saying that, I need to add that everything was very fresh, the microwave ovens were only used to make the food hot. The keftedes tasted very fresh and they were very meaty. Meaty? You may ask. Traditionally, keftedes are made with a fair amount of bread mixed in with the meat. It was a way to make the meat go further. Some restaurants take that too far. Not here, however.

The keftedes in the tomato sauce are basically the same item, however, the meatballs are simmered in a sauce of fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil, and some secret spices. The flavors blend well together.

Finally, as if all this was not enough, we also had the filiana dolmades, which were a disappointing attempt at fusion cooking.  Perhaps using onion layers to wrap fillings is traditional somewhere in Greece, but we haven’t found it yet (there are however, 1000 islands, and we surely have not visited them all.)  These dolmades, stuffed with bacon, cheese and spinach, sounded like they’d be make an interesting dish. But in the end, the gobs of melted cheese on top, and the instability of the “dolma” wrapper (the onion) coupled with the lack of substantial stuffing (normally a rice or meat and rice combination) left an unstable dolma which fell apart when cut and was not at all impressive.

Overall, the portions were generous, all the dishes we ordered were appetizers, but they were very filling.

The restaurant has a variety of meat plates, many traditional and some frequently found. On a subsequent visit, we’ll certainly try the Metsovitiko, lamb with leeks and cheese, the Santorinio, with a puree of eggplant and potato, and the Mastihisio,  chicken in masticha sauce.

Of course, we will make sure not to order appetizers first … well, maybe just the mussels.

The restaurant is owned by two women, and though I don’t know how they chose the name, Tzitzikas & Mermigas does come from Aesop’s tale of the cicada and the ant, in which the cicada spends his summer singing, while the practical ant spends his storing food for the winter, and unlike the original fable, I do know that the fable of the Tzitzikas & Mermigas in Syntagma ends with the cicada still singing, while the pragmatic ant has brought to Athens a terrific, well run restaurant. they created the name of the restaurant after themselves, the cicada is the creative one and the ant is the business person. Whatever they are, their restaurant seems to demonstrate that, unlike Aesop’s ant and cicada, creative types and hard working types can work together.

The total for 2 with wine came to €74.

Tzitzikas & Mermigas is located at Mitropoleos 12 -14, about a block and a half off of Syntagma Square. It’s a great place to experience life as an Athenian. Lunch is served beginning at 1 PM, and the tables will be full of business people, Athenians taking a break from shopping on Ermou and lots of Parliament employees practicing the art of the long Greek lunch. Mondays and Wednesdays seem to be the days most likely to find Athenians lingering, as these are the traditional days for many offices and businesses to close early and not reopen after siesta.  Of course they are also open for dinner (the don’t close in between). The restaurant is a great alternative to the “combo plate” tavernas in the heart of Plaka, and it’s worth the 5 – 7 minute walk from the historical center.

In addition to the Syntagma location, Tzitzikas & Mermigas has two additional locations:
Ano Patisia, Pl. Papadiamanti 4, 210/22.32.376
Halandri, Ag. Georgiou & Aisxilou 26, 210/68.10.529