Three great authentic restaurants in Crete: sun, seafood and second helpings
Cretan food combines tasty Greek cooking with Ottoman and Venetian influences. We visit three restaurants on the island that showcase its super fresh produce, artisanal cheeses and amazing seafood, not forgetting the free desserts and raki
If you go to Greece and only eat gyros and souvlaki, then you really missed out.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a big pita loaded with grilled meat, tomato, onion, tzatziki and chips – it’s not Greek without the French fries – but there’s so much more to Hellenic fare. And we’re not talking about feta cheese, moussaka and spanakopita.
If you want to go beyond familiar staples, one of the country’s most distinctive regional cuisines is on the island of Crete. The southernmost Greek island and the largest in the Aegean Sea, it is best known from history classes as home of the Minoan civilisation and the place where, in mythology, Theseus killed the Minotaur in the labyrinth.
Today, islanders pride themselves on producing the best and freshest vegetables, herbs, cheeses and olive oil in Greece. The word organic might not be used much on Crete, but much of its produce is grown naturally on small family farms and sold in the nearest town. That’s one reason why not much of it is exported and hence why it is not well known.
This abundance of great ingredients is combined with cooking techniques influenced by Crete’s past rulers, including the Ottomans and Venetians, in local recipes that are splendidly Mediterranean.
You can still find all the best dishes from Athens, but in Crete they tend to have greater depth and more layered flavours. Cretans make more stews and soups, and cook with honey and cheese in combination with meats and carbohydrates. Like ancient treasures still buried and undiscovered in an archaeological site, Cretan cuisine continues to fly below the world’s gastronomic radar.
In the capital, Heraklion, you will find interesting dishes not common in other parts of Greece, such as snails fried with rosemary, zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese, and goat confit (although they just describe it as “goat cooked in oil”).
One thing you won’t find is fine dining. It’s not that there aren’t fancy restaurants with white tablecloths that appeal to the tourists, but the dishes they serve are mostly standard and conservative. And who wants to dress up in Greece? You’re more likely to find inspiring local fare down an alley in one of the island’s old towns or just off the tourist path.
A block away from Heraklion’s Morosini Fountain in Venizelou Square, inside a refashioned traditional house, is Peskesi, one of the city’s best and most authentic Cretan restaurants.
It’s suggested that its chefs have spent 10 years researching and honing Peskesi’s fare for authenticity. The presentation is rustic and humble, and the dishes are generously portioned and flavoured. Much of the meat and vegetables come from its own farm outside the city. Its wine list is all Cretan.
The amuse bouche is a crimson-toned beetroot and yogurt dip, drizzled with olive oil and fried garlic. Served on a crystal plate, it looks spectacular. The earthy warmth of the beetroots marries beautifully with the cooling yogurt. It’s simple and impressive.
The “Asterousia” soup, a modest mountain shepherd dish of potato and milk, is luxuriously comforting and nourishing. You might want to take some of the rusk, a dry, hard, double-baked bread – it’s very hard on the teeth but popular in Crete, for some reason – and soak it in the soup for texture.
A legacy of the Venetian period is pasta, which appears on even the most traditional menus. Peskesi offers a free-range rooster from its farm cooked in wine with tagliatelle and the Greek equivalent of Parmesan cheese, kefalotyri. It’s meaty enough for two and the way you want a pasta to be.
A most typical Cretan main course is kreokakavos, which is pork roasted with honey and thyme until the meat is falling off the bone. Served with a legume purée to absorb the delicious juices, it is tender and addictive.
Over in the resort town of Rethymno, scores of trendy bars and chic restaurants line the beach, but more interesting food is found in the old town. A real gem is an unassuming café at the back of the Neratze Mosque. Open since 2006, Rakodikio draws more locals than tourists with an all-Cretan menu. Even more astonishing, nothing costs more than €10 (US$11.60)
We start with the katergara salad, which is a nice showcase for the Cretan ewe milk cheese, xynomizithra. Made with whey and a little milk, it’s slightly sour and soft but not as strong as goat or blue cheese. The creaminess nicely complements the dish’s spinach, pomegranate seeds, apple and onion slices. It’s followed by a vegetable velouté soup, which is like minestrone with fine local feta cheese for accent.
Another regional favourite is apaki, or smoked pork. At Rakodikio, the loin is thinly sliced then pan- fried with splashes of red wine and served with a honey-sweetened yogurt sauce. This is a light dish by Greek standards, but still very satisfying.
It’s worth noting that many establishments offer complimentary dessert and a small carafe of raki at meal’s end, and Rakodikio is no exception. They treat us to a small crepe-like fried cheese pie drizzled with honey. Their anise-infused raki was especially interesting, sweetened with honey and pomegranate.
Further west is Chania, its second largest town on the island and the one that is most Venetian in character, evident in the old town’s architecture. It possesses a picturesque harbour that is especially romantic at night with the houses lit up. The biggest selling point of waterside dining is the scenery – most tourists are happy to settle for a competent Greek salad and souvlaki, or even a hamburger.
You have to make a bit of an effort to seek out authentic Cretan food on the harbour. One nice option is Arismari, which is connected to a boutique hotel above. Its atmosphere is airy and relaxed, and the menu prides itself on “creative Cretan cuisine”. Find an al fresco table at night and delight in another hearty gastronomic treat.
The smoked bacon appetiser with sweet onion syrup is presented in a highly theatrical manner, the meat hanging on hooks. Thick-cut, the cured and grilled belly slices are not too salty, although the meat is a bit tough – the Greeks have a tendency to overcook meat and fish. But we can have no complaint about the soft, tasty onions caramelised in molasses that accompany the bacon.
Pork is the main source of protein in Greece, and more arrives in the shape of Arismari’s Cretan pasta with smoked pork. It’s basically an apaki bolognese with oregano, cherry tomatoes and a large dollop of anthotyros, a soft goat’s milk cheese. The sauce and the cheese are wonderful, but the best part is the freshly made, chewy tubular curls of pasta.
As you might expect in a Mediterranean city, the seafood is fantastic. Any time you see squid, octopus, sardines or mackerel on a menu, it likely came from boats not far from the restaurant. Sea bream, the day’s special, is grilled, and served with baked potato and a boiled local green vegetable called stamnagathi, akin to a bitter chicory. The grilled fish – as fresh as any Cantonese granny could hope for – doesn’t disappoint. It is perfectly cooked, with the white flesh still supple and moist, while the skin is crisp.
It’s another deeply enjoyable meal in another breathlessly memorable Crete setting. But wait, don’t fall into a food coma just yet. There’s still free dessert and complementary raki.
Kapetan Haralampi 6-8, Heraklion, tel: +30 2810 288 887, peskesicrete.gr/en; e-mail: [email protected]
Vernadou 7, Old Town, Rethymno, tel: +30 2831 054 437; email: [email protected]
Akti Kountourioti 55, Chania, tel: +30 2821 074 419, arismarichania.gr/?lang=en; e-mail: [email protected]