Hungry in Athens’ Crisis Zone: Lawrence Osborne Visits Spondi

Recession repast: An open-air soup kitchen in Athens. Michalis Karagiannis / Phasma2

Two weeks ago, in the spring rains, Athens neared the High Noon of its dismal economic fate. The cafés in the suave enclaves of Caravel and Kolonaki were calm, the waiters were excessively nice, but there was a mood of expectant fear and fatalistic doom. The euro was going down, possibly, but with a grim certainty Greece was going down still faster—the laws of economic gravity had finally asserted themselves. The elections set for June 17 seemed almost an irrelevance. For now, Greece is probably about to exit the euro as well. It will do so, many experts say, in a single 46-hour weekend after which the dreaded drachma will be returned. There is even a nasty neologism for it: Grexit.

I sat one morning at Oroscopo in Caravel reading the American press. Athens, according to our scribes, was drowning in decay, despair, and giant rats. Packs of dogs roamed the boulevards snapping up old ladies. Migrants and refugees were being assaulted by the hoplites of the far-right Golden Dawn. There was class warfare in the streets; the country would run out of money in six weeks. Cannibalism was imminent and the ATMs would stop working. Which was more shocking?

Grexit was upon us. But was Grexit really Greece? There was little way of knowing, because that day the rain was gentle, the dogs were asleep under the pine trees in the parks, and the only anomalies were the guys in dreadlocks performing fire-eating shows at the traffic lights. It was all rather melancholy and resigned; the beggars said a polite kalispera to everyone.

But appearances are deceptive. I decided to stay a few days and eat out at the city’s Michelin-rated restaurants. Could there be any handier (and tastier) test of national economic disaster?

Capital flight had filled the hysterical news cycle that week. The Greeks were pulling money out of the country as fast as they could. The rich, or even the moderately well off, were stampeding for London, Geneva, even Bermuda. They wanted their euros intact. I wondered if, like some vanishing breed, I would even see any of them at Spondi, the two-star Michelin restaurant in Kolonaki, which is considered the best restaurant in Greece. Could anyone afford to eat at Spondi anymore, and could they handle the execrable guilt?

Spondi today is perhaps the cheapest Michelin-awarded restaurant on earth. But when I went there in a spring thunderstorm, the inconspicuous doors on a side street with their buffed gold plaques looked even more discreet and anxious than they normally must.

There was also the effortless luxe et calme of the French joint that knows it is the best in the city. It was hard to imagine Alexis Tsipras, leader of the hard-left Syriza party, coming here for a quick fricassée de champignon avec fromage Brillat-Savarin, but I may have been wrong. Greece is a complex place. “We have been here for 5,000 years,” one is constantly told, “and we aren’t going away because of the euro.” This is undeniably true, but is it also joyful?

Spondi has a wary sadness to it, but its food is still subtle and sure and confident. The rooms are filled with little lamps shimmering with multicolored glass droplets. The plates are gold rimmed and the stone walls are exposed. At the table next to mine, a young Chinese couple was staring in wonder at two black wooden prongs with cone wafers of bright green cod brandade impaled upon them. Below the prongs, a spoon with a dollop of honey-crusted foie gras. The girl took pictures with her iPhone. In Mandarin I heard them ask, “Yeah, but what is it?”

I ate mine with a regal Ktima chardonnay from Pendeli, hometown of a mythic Dionysus cult. It was followed by an excellent “Parmesan” with girolles. After that, the above-mentioned mushroom puff pastry with Brillat-Savarin. It was all methodical, witty, and delicious.

But when the French waiter came over to chat, he was somber. This was a very hard time for them, he said. Next month they might be charging their clients in drachmas. They might even run out of girolles.

“That’s a bit drachmatic,” I tried to joke.

The smile was wan.

“What happens if Grexit comes?” I tried.

“It’s a true disaster for us. The French mushrooms and truffles will be out of the question. We’ll still have our mushrooms from Macedonia, of course. But what about the truffles? The Pol Roger?” We observed a moment of grieving silence.

“Will the top restaurants close?” I began again.

“Well,” he said philosophically, “you have to remember that Greece has been here for 5,000 years—and Greeks still love to eat out. They always will.”

In times of crises, people always retreat to the eternal memes of their ancestral lore. “You want to dance?” Zorba cries at the end of Cacoyannis’s lovely film. Greek joy might well be eternal, so I labored on. Finally looking up from my plates, I now saw that the restaurant was in fact full, it was just that everyone there was Chinese. Eight full tables of a group from Taiwan. They seemed very happy, and I could hear whispers about how wonderfully good value it was, and how the 86 euros for the Menu Champignon was a steal compared with the rest of Europe. Imagine if it was priced in drachmas. The Chinese would be over in thousands. Why eat Michelin food in Paris when you can eat it for an eighth of the price in Athens? Why eat a sandwich in Paris even? It was the same price as dinner at Spondi, the oil of Hania thrown in.

Spondi Spondi is one of the best Michelin-starred values in Europe. Why eat in Paris? Courtesy of Spondi

Ah, the oil of Hania. I dipped my bread in a pool of deep, pungent olive oil from the northern mountains of Crete, the best olive oil in the world: Minoan oil from Hania. Then eggplant ravioli and the “Young Rooster” served with a foaming side of potatoes and mushrooms.

The waiter came to talk me through Spondi’s extraordinary procedures for procuring “handmade espresso.” The coffee came from one Giovanni Erbisti in Verona. Erbisti sells his coffee to only one restaurant in every city in the world, and before he sells it to you, you have to buy a particular old espresso machine to make it. They had one from 1950. Erbisti was satisfied.

“It is the best espresso in the eastern Mediterranean.”

It was, as it turned out.

“But,” he added, “can it survive?”

I laid into a chocolate parfait with a mango sorbet of amazing intensity. Close to midnight, two Greek socialites finally came in and sat at the only non-Chinese table available. Perhaps they were among the 86 percent of Greeks who don’t pay taxes, but there was something horribly reassuring about their vapid opulence.

I finished with something one cannot enjoy elsewhere in the euro zone: a cigar. They had a list of Havanas, Robusta, Petit Corona, Churchill, and Cohiba Esplendidos, and even with one of these the bill was modest, about what food ought to cost. It was for the Taiwanese to indulge in the €120 shots of Remy Martin Louis XIII.

One might say that the bankruptcy of an individual is a tragedy while that of a nation is a statistic. In Greece the mood is this: the crisis is the fabrication of bankers, politicians, speculators, Goldman Sachs, and the nefarious Germans. It will, therefore, pass. And Spondi’s eggplant ravioli and the splendid gold-green olive oil of Hania will endure.