Amazing Greek Seafood (w/ Recipes!)

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Octopi drying on a boat in Santorini; The view a hilltop in Mykonos.

The chef is smiling, arms folded across his belly, as the first courses are served: sautéed foie gras with raisin paste, ouzo jelly and a drizzle of black syrup made with grapes from a local vineyard, and a jet-black risotto made with local cuttlefish and retsina, the infamous Greek wine often derided for its off-putting pine-resin peculiarity.

But the aroma wafting from the risotto isn’t peculiar. It’s freshly clipped basil, and the sweet marine scent of cuttlefish. The waiter pours a bottle of Assyrtiko, a crisp white with a nose full of citrus, sourced from a sandy-soiled vineyard down the road. The chef stands there, still smiling, waiting for a response.

Koukoumavlos is not a typical Greek restaurant, and its Michelin-starred chef/owner Nikos Pouliasis, not a typical Greek chef. His controversial restaurant in Santorini is where modern meets the baroque and where tradition often clashes with innovation. Enjoying an idyllic perch atop a craggy cliff, Koukoumavlos overlooks Santorini’s interior volcanic basin. Whitewashed stucco houses unfold across the hillside, and fishing boats dot the sea down below. Geraniums overflow from terracotta pots on the terrace. The tables and chairs inside are a wobbly mishmash of rococo, contemporary and Mediterranean farmhouse rustic. The walls are slightly pink, hung with gilded mirrors and faded oil paintings. Lace tablecloths flutter in a slight breeze that blows up from the Aegean.

The chef seems relieved when his seafood risotto is met with oohs and ahhs and enthusiastic nods of approval. “Many Greeks think I’m crazy,” he tells us. “They think what I’m doing is not Greek because it is not just a piece of fish on a plate. But to them I say, ‘Why should the French and the Spanish get to have all the fun?’”

It’s a point that’s hard to dismiss, considering that much of what Pouliasis serves is grown, harvested, hooked or netted on or around Santorini: fava beans, capers, tomatoes, wine and, of course, all manner of seafood—octopus, ocean trout, cuttlefish, mullet. He is Santorini’s ultimate locavore, but because he cooks in an avant-garde style similar to Pierre Gagnaire in Paris or Ludovic Lefebvre in Los Angeles, he doesn’t always win the respect of his fellow Greeks, who tend to be a rather conservative lot.

He’s too edgy, say many of his countrymen, who take umbrage with what Pouliasis dismisses as just a “piece of fish on a plate.” For most Greek chefs, traditionalism runs deep, especially when it comes to seafood.

A Piece of Fish on a Plate
Very simple grilling and roasting are the hallmarks of a cuisine that dates back to ancient times. And most Greeks still adamantly believe that the only embellishment a fish ever really requires is a liberal drizzle of ladolemono, a thick vinaigrette made with olive oil, lemon and oregano.

“Greeks are very particular about their methods of preparation,” says Erik Cosselmon, executive chef of Kokkari—a restaurant that for more than 10 years has maintained a status as one of San Francisco’s most elegant and prestigious restaurants, a place where customers get dolled up for a piece of fish on a plate. But it’s never merely that.

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Grilled whole fish at Kokkari, San Francisco, adapted from Kokkari, Contemporary Greek Flavors (Chronicle, 2011) (photo by Sara Remington)

Immediately upon entering Kokkari, guests are greeted by the comforting embrace of fish being grilled over a wood fire, of lamb roasting on a spit in the dining room—and a gracious welcome from the staff. Tie-clad waiters glide from the kitchen delivering platters of beautifully charred whole fish to be filleted tableside. Seafood accounts for more than 30 percent of sales at Kokkari, much of it very simply grilled over mesquite coals or roasted in a pizza oven stoked with oak and almond wood.

Sea bass, cooked whole, is one of the restaurant’s top sellers. Cosselmon rubs the fish with olive oil and sprinkles it with salt, pepper and dried oregano—nothing more. He cooks it directly over the hottest section of the grill until the skin begins to brown underneath, which is when he moves the fish, without turning it, to a cooler section of the grill and continues cooking until the bottom is almost fully cooked. He then flips it and cooks the other side in a similar two-stage fashion, pulling it off the grill the instant its flesh begins to pull away from the backbone. Only then is the sea bass ready to be drizzled with ladolemono, which he keeps handy in a squeeze bottle.

Fish is treated very minimally with similar orthodoxy at Avli, a modern Greek restaurant in Winnetka, Illinois, an affluent suburb of Chicago. “We’re never going to use foam on octopus, “says owner Louie Alexakis. “There’s a place for that, but we fall somewhere between experimental and old-school.”

It’s that “old-school” reputation that the best Greek restaurants in America today are trying so hard from which to distance themselves: the singing waiters, the smashing plates, the flaming cheese, the belly dancers and guests slamming ouzo shots and yelling “Opah!”

“All that stuff, it’s not Greek,” says Petros Benefos, a Greek restaurateur with two eponymous restaurants in Southern California (in Manhattan Beach and Los Olivios) and a third on the way (in Santa Barbara). “The Greeks who first came and opened restaurants in America,” he says, &l
dquo;do not represent Greek cuisine. They created an ethnic gimmick that has very little to do with our culture, our hospitality and cooking.”

That’s a key reason why he and Cosselmon and Alexikis and many others today haven’t rushed to emulate Santorini’s Pouliasis. They feel that they still have work to do to correct America’s image of Greek cuisine. To them, the idea of “modern Greek” means getting back to basics. And that means simplicity, purity and integrity.

It’s All About the Source
It’s this principle of honesty and exactness that restaurateur Costas Spiliadis calls the soul of Greek cuisine. Spiliadis is the chef/owner of Estiatorio Milos, an upscale Greek restaurant with locations in New York, Las Vegas, Montreal and Athens. 

The menus at Milos are comprised predominantly of fish—as many as 15 different types every night, all more or less cooked the same way: either grilled with ladolemono or roasted with sea salt. Thus, the quality of raw ingredients becomes enormously important. “I realized very early in my career that I would have to go beyond the ordinary supply chain,” Spiliadis says.

Cooking fish so minimally is one of the most difficult things a chef can learn, he says. Cooks must take into account the fish’s fat content, width and thickness—not to mention temperamental fluctuations of the grill—in order to master perfect timing, which is crucial.

Since opening the original Milos in Montreal in 1979, Spiliadis has built an extensive network of independent fishermen in Greece (and around the world) who now supply his restaurants with line-caught sea bass, red porgy, snapper, grouper, dorade, Dover sole and a half dozen different breams. For Spiliadis, the only trend he’s interested in is his customers’ ever-growing appreciation for fresher and fresher seafood. “For me,” he says, “that’s the only envelope to be pushed.”

Of course for most chefs, coordinating and managing a network of fishermen halfway around the world constitutes a pipe dream. Still, that shouldn’t stop them insisting on the highest quality available, says Kokkari’s Cosselmon, who found his answer on the local pier: a family-run operation that works with the local fishing boats. “The local cod in San Francisco is just incredible,” he says. And although the fish is caught off the coast of California, the spirit of the restaurant remains purely Greek.

Daring to Push the Envelope
While Spiliadis and Petros and many of their contemporaries feel there is no envelope to push, others are more wiling to get creative—to a degree. No one in American has yet to come anywhere close to the experimental cutting edge of Santorini’s Pouliasis.

“We try to keep it within in the boundaries of a classic style,” Cosselmon says. “But that’s not to say we won’t push the boundaries from time to time.” It’s the appetizers, not the entrées, where Cosselmon feels he has the most freedom to innovate. He’ll often serve raw scallops or salmon, crudo-style. “The salmon crudo is always very well received by the guests,” he says. The chef slices the fish to order, then marinates it for a couple minutes in a mixture of ouzo, lemon juice and olive oil with just a hint of Aleppo pepper before delivering it to the table. 

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Ouzo-cured salmon from Kokkari, San Francisco, adapted from Kokkari, Contemporary Greek Flavors (Chronicle, 2011) (photo by Sara Remington)

It’s often easier to push the envelope with octopus or squid than with the fish entrées, Cosselman says. One of Kokkari’s top sellers is a stuffed calamari, with just enough bread crumbs to absorb any moisture and just enough feta, mint, olives and orange zest to make it stand out from everyone every other calamari in town. The chef stuffs the calamari in advance of service, then sears them on the grill briefly, and immediately rushes them to the table.

At Susan Feniger’s Street in Los Angeles, the well-known chef serves creative twists on classic street foods and flavors from all over the world, including the cuisine of Greece. A couple of years ago, her restaurant catered the celebrity-packed gala for the theatrical premiere of Medea at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. The contemporary remake of the classic Greek tragedy starred Annette Bening in the lead role, but the biggest star at the party was Feniger’s Greek-inspired oysters on the half shell. She served them with reduced OJ, yuzu kosho and chopped shallots. She also served shrimp, which were first marinated in oregano and garlic then wrapped in filo dough and fried, served with taramasalata, a classic Greek dip made with olive oil and fish roe. “It was all pretty delicious,” Feniger recalls. “I absolutely love, love that food.”

“If you look back at Italian cuisine in 50s, and compare it with Italian cuisine today,” Avli’s Alexakis says, “it’s got the same heart and soul that it used to have, but the presentation has been updated, the techniques refined. And that’s what’s finally happening with Greek cuisine today. I don’t want to loose that traditional heart. I just want to make it better.”

 

A version of this story was originally published the July/August issue Plate magazine.

###

Recipes:

OYSTERS W/ OUZO AND YUZU
Chef/owner Susan Feniger and chef/partner Kajsa Alger
Street, Los Angeles
Yield: 1 dozen

1 cup Orange Juice
½ c Yuzu lime juice
2oz Ouzo
2 shallots-finely minced
2 T extra virgin Greek olive oil
1 dozen oysters

Garnish with a chiffonade of fresh mint, about ½ bunch
1. Reduce orange juice to ½ cup, then combine the reduced OJ with the lime juice, ouzo, shallots and oil. Shake or whisk well to combine. 

2. Open a dozen of your favorite oysters (I prefer Kumamoto), and with a little bowl of salted water and a brush, gently brush the oyster to get rid of any loose shells.

3. Spoon a teaspoon of the sauce onto the oyster, and garnish with a touch of the fresh mint. Alternatively, serve the oysters in shot glasses. 

GREEK FISHERMAN’S STEW W/ TOMATO AND SAFFRON
Executive chef Erik Cosselmon
Kokkari, San Francisco
Adapted from Kokkari, Contemporary Greek Flavors (Chronicle, 2011)
Yield: 6 servings 

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup coarsely chopped onion
1 small carrot, peeled and halved lengthwise, then sliced thinly crosswise
1 inner rib celery including leaves, thinly sliced crosswise
2 cloves garlic, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1⁄4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1⁄2 teaspoon saffron threads
1⁄4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1 live Dungeness crab, about 2 pounds, cleaned and cut up
1⁄2 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
1 pound bone-in fish steaks, such as halibut, rock cod or striped bass
1⁄2 cup dry white wine
1 cup Kokkari Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)
3 tablespoons ouzo liqueur
1 dozen large shrimp, preferably head on, back split and deveined
1 pound large mussels, debearded

1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over high heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, a pinch of salt, and several grinds of pepper. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften slightly, about 3 minutes. Don’t allow them to color.

2. Add the parsley, saffron, and pepper flakes and stir for a minute or two. Add the crab and stir to coat with the seasonings. Add the oregano, crumbling it between your fingers, then add the fish steaks, wine, tomato sauce, and ouzo. Bring to a simmer, stirring gently, then add all the crab viscera and juices. Add 2 cups of water and season with salt, remembering that mussel juices are salty. Bring to a simmer, then add the shrimp and mussels. Cover and simmer until the shrimp turn pink, the mussels open, and the fish is white and flaky, about 3 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Kokkari Tomato Sauce
Yield: 2½ cups 

1 can (28-ounce) San Marzano tomatoes, with juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon Italian tomato paste (optional)
1⁄2 teaspoon dried Greek oregano, crumbled
1 sprig fresh basil
Sea salt

1. In a food processor, puree the tomatoes with their juice. Set aside.

2. In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté just until it begins to brown, tipping the pan so the cloves remain covered in oil. Remove from the heat and discard the garlic cloves. Add the pureed tomatoes to the hot oil—the mixture will sizzle and splatter—then return the pan to medium heat. Cook, stirring often and adjusting the heat to maintain a gentle simmer, until the sauce has thickened and lost its raw taste, about 15 minutes. If the flavor does not seem rich enough, stir in the optional tomato paste. Add the oregano and simmer 5 minutes more. Add the basil sprig and remove from the heat. Season to taste with salt. 

GRILLED WHOLE FISH W/ LADOLEMONO
Executive chef Erik Cosselmon
Kokkari, San Francisco
Adapted from Kokkari, Contemporary Greek Flavors (Chronicle, 2011)
Yield: 1 serving 

1 small whole fish, such as sea bass, about 1 pound, cleaned and scaled
Extra-virgin olive oil Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Dried Greek oregano, crumbled
Ladolemono (recipe follows)
1 lemon, halved 

1. Prepare the grill so that one side is hot and the other is medium.

2. With a sharp knife, make a single deep incision on both sides of the fish, slicing from head to tail along the backbone. Just before you are ready to grill, lightly oil the outside of the fish. Sprinkle inside and out with salt, pepper, and dried oregano.

3. Cook the fish directly over the hot zone of the grill until the skin browns on one side, 3 to 4 minutes. Then move the fish, without turning, to the medium zone until the flesh is almost fully cooked on the bottom side, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Turn the fish and move it directly over the hottest zone of the grill to crisp and brown the second side. Then move it to the grill’s cooler zone until the flesh begins to pull away from the backbone at the incision. Total cooking time for the fish is about 15 minutes.

4. Transfer the fish to a platter. Fillet the upper half of the fish with 2 large spoons, working from the incision to lift the meat off the bone in large
pieces and onto a dinner plate. With the 2 spoons, grasp the head and lift it; the entire skeleton should follow in one piece, detaching cleanly from the lower half of the fish. Transfer the bottom fillet to the dinner plate. Drizzle with the dressing and accompany with the lemon halves and extra dressing on the side. (You can offer the head and skeleton to your guests, or reserve for making a light fish stock.)

Kokkari’s Ladolemono
Yield: ½ cup
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons capers, rinsed and minced
2 teaspoons minced shallot
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1⁄2 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1⁄4 teaspoon dried wild Greek oregano, crumbled
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper 

In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, capers, shallot, garlic, parsley, and fresh oregano. Add the dried oregano and whisk in salt and pepper to taste.

OUZO-CURED SALMON W/ ALEPPE PEPPER AND OLIVE OIL
Executive chef Erik Cosselmon
Kokkari, San Francisco
Adapted from Kokkari, Contemporary Greek Flavors (Chronicle, 2011) 
Yield: 6 portions

3⁄4 pound skinless sashimi-grade salmon fillet
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon ouzo
1⁄2 teaspoon honey
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Sea salt, preferably Maldon or other flaky salt
Freshly ground ancho chile powder (or black pepper)
Pinch of Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon chopped fresh dill

1. Feel for and remove any pin bones from the salmon fillet. If the fillet has a white, string-like “tendon” running down the center, trim it away. Trim any gray flesh on the skin side. With a sharp chef’s knife, slice the salmon thinly— about 1⁄4 inch thick or less—on a slight diagonal and arrange the slices side by side, close together, on a chilled platter.

2. To make a marinade, whisk together the lemon juice, ouzo, and honey. Gradually whisk in the olive oil.

3. Spoon the marinade over the fish. Season the fish with salt and black pepper. Let marinate at least 10 minutes before serving. The fish will begin to change color but will not be fully cured at that point; marinate longer if you like. Just before serving, garnish with the Aleppo pepper and dill.

GREEK-STYLE GRILLED SNAPPER
Chef/owner Petros Benefos
Petros, Manhattan Beach/Los Olivis, California 
Yield: 1 portion

1 10-oz fillet red snapper, carefully deboned
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
½ plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper
Chopped parsley 

1. In a blender, combine 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup lemon juice and a little bit of pepper; blend for 30 seconds. The sauce should be thick and yellowish. Set aside.

2. Clean the fish with water, and let it dry, then rub the fish with a little bit of olive oil, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and sprinkle it with salt. Set aside for 15 to 20 minutes.

3. Cook the fish on a hot grill, turning it couple of times so the fish doesn’t stick to the grill. (For some cooks, it will be difficult to do on a grill or not burn the fish; alternatively, mark the fish on the grill for a couple of minutes on both sides and then finish the cooking in the oven.)

4. Serve the fish with a drizzle of sauce. Sprinkle the whole plate with parsley. on top of the fish and sprinkle the whole plate with parsley.

 

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