In a paper titled “Feasting in the Homeric Epic,” the English scholar Susan Sherratt points out that feasting is the single most frequent activity in the Odyssey, and also, apart from fighting, in the Iliad. “It is clearly not only an activity of Homeric heroes but also one that helps demonstrate that they are indeed heroes.” Tracing a line from there to modern Greeks may help understand their irrepressible urge to order more than anyone could possibly consume in one sitting - it’s not gluttony or childish greed, it’s, in a self-celebratory way, heroic. This food culture has an egalitarian flair, much as the epics hold no hierarchy when it comes to heroism. In much of Europe, the décor and societal markers (valet parking, liveried waiters, etc.) of a restaurant are expected to be in line with the quality of the food. (Maybe because here, kings and emperors did the feasting.) In Greece, some of the best places barely look different from a souvlaki joint, and the service attitude is the same, and one of the great things, at least for me, is that they are open continuously between 1 p.m. and 1 a.m. You can show up at 3 in the afternoon. Mikres Kyklades is an example for all of the above.
The name means “Lesser Cyclades” referring to an archipelago south of Naxos comprising 32 islands and rocks. You couldn’t feel further away from it in Ilioupoli, one of the non-descript districts that make up Athens’ infinite urban sprawl. And you won’t find the restaurant without the street address because it is, between endless apartment blocks and suburban houses, in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Then you’ll get out of the taxi, look at it and think, “that’s it?” A no-frills aluminum-and glass enclosed veranda, a slightly bigger dining room, white tiles and paint. The only up-market signifiers are the white tablecloths.
Antonios Kovaios, the owner, is a native of Schinoussa, one of the Lesser Cyclades islands. He’ll almost certainly be there, tanned, relaxed, making sure everything is just as it should be. In the kitchen, you’ll find Stavros Spanelis, another displaced islander, from Lesvos. They don’t seem like they are obsessed about anything, but don’t let them fool you. They product-source as meticulously as 3-star chefs, with most ingredients coming from – you guessed it, the lesser Cyclades.
We had a perfect seabream Carpaccio trimmed with tiny tomatoes. The sea urchin was just that – freshly carved strips in a bowl with bread sticks on the side. No need to mess with nature’s perfection. We had a crispy chicken salad, before the buttery, slightly seasoned crayfish Carpaccio – a dish I still had a craving for months later. The octopus in red sauce with a fava puree, stewed onions and saffron was prepared by lesser gods – a bit too sweet, but the red grouper was grilled to perfection, crispy on the outside, pearlescent on the bone. Everything came delivered with Mediterranean nonchalance and a Cheshire cat-like smile that seemed to say, “yea, we know, it’s delicious.” If there’s a similarity between Chinese and Greek restaurants though, it’s not in the nature of that smile, but in the general inferiority of deserts and liqueurs. They tried, a little, with a slice of orange, chocolate and feta cream cake, and the usual spirits on the house. Usually it’s better to skip that and ask for fresh fruit and a Greek coffee.
As we walked out, paying our compliments to the chef, two fishermen arrived carrying a fish they’d just caught, as a big as a teenager. Turns out, Mr. Kovaios has a small fleet beholden to him. They phone to say what’s in the nets and he pounces, like a suburban Poseidon, always readying a feast.