A Moveable Greek Feast

15 Nov

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Here’s a travel secret for you: Paris got Greeks. The problem is, when you think of the Greek restaurants in Paris, you probably think of either the omnipresent ‘Sandwich grec’ stalls that sell fantastic hangover cures (aka greasy street meat) or of men throwing plates at tourists in the Latin Quarter (on a street that a friend once affectionately coined ‘Bacteria Alley’).

Allow me to change your perception.
On a recent trip to Paris, I gathered together a group of Frenchies and hit L’Olivier Restaurant, just off Place de la République. Those who know me know that I don’t set a foot on the Right Bank if I don’t have to, but I am gastronomically bound to ChefKef and I wanted to avoid Paris’s most famous Left Bank Greek restaurant, Mavrommatis.
Mavrommatis is good by all standards, but also traditional and stuffy—not the kind of place that lends itself to an incredibly witty review published on prestigious pages like these. L’Olivier (‘the olive tree’), on the other hand, is small, young, hip and part of France’s ‘le fooding’ movement (once featured by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker). It’s the kind of place that avoids mousaka and octopus and instead favors what L’Olivier calls “inspirations from traditional cuisine.” Plus, it allowed me to reference Adam Gopnik, which keeps Chef Kef happy.
In addition to all Greek-sourced oils and cheese, L’Olivier offers a 40€ 7-course chef’s tasting menu that looked like it might be good enough to change a life or two–but considering JetSet Kef’s upcoming 10-year high school reunion, the group decided to go in a different direction. In a display of sex-solidarity, the guys all chose the same appetizer and entrée, while the girls did the same. If this were the battle of the sexes from the local NY radio station I stream from my office in Dubai (shout out to Terry Donovan), the guys would definitely have won.
Round 1: an amuse-bouche for the table that was all about the cheese. A bit of sweet cheese between two pieces of toast with an AMAZING goat cheese mousse and a little bit of cream on the side. Imagine something sweet, tangy and light all at once–impossible to eat it in less than one mouthful, sadly. WINNER: TIE.
ROUND TWO: The girls’ appetizer, I must say wasn’t so exciting. Tiropitta (cheese pies) with honey. Sure, it tasted good – excellent fresh feta from Epirus and a great honey from somewhere in Crete – but not something JetSet Kef needs to take a 6-hour flight to eat. Delicious, yes; exciting, no. Basically – exactly what I was trying to avoid.
… Which is why I was so happy about MY appetizer. Pumpkin velouté with Greek yoghurt.
Let me tell you – if the Greeks get one thing right (it’s certainly not international finance), it’s seasonal dishes. Thick soup with a pumpkin purée base, with a tablespoon of Greek yoghurt right in the middle to offset the sweet of the pumpkin and the consistency of the soup. And to make it perfect? A little mousse from the left over pumpkin on the side. Divine.  
ROUND THREE: THE MAIN COURSE. The girls ordered a sea bream over a croustillant of chic peas, herbs and a hint of spinach. Everything about this was technically well done: the fish was cooked just right, the croustillant was cooked just the right amount, but here’s the problem: sea bream is a boring fish and chic peas are a bit boring as well. I mean, the first few bites you think to yourself “Wow, this is nice!” but by bite number four your tastebuds are already thinking about how much more stimulating the appetizer was. (Especially if you had the tyropitta first. Sorry, girls, bad pairing.)  
The picture speaks a thousand words here: it looks nice, but even the plating is a bit dull.
The boys’ dinner, on the other hand, was AWESOME. Leg of lamb, barley mixed with greens and a bit of Greek yoghurt. Ba-bam. The lamb was incredibly fresh and tender, cooked to just the right level (clearly more than rare but not quite medium rare) and seasoned perfectly. The barley-greens combination totally did it for me, especially as the little bit of olive oil in it, coupled with the excess lamb juice on the plate, made every bite hearty and delicious. The sweet tangy – and even thicker than usual – yoghurt at the end rounded off the course perfectly.
ROUND FOUR: DESSERT. Now, before I tell you about this course—I need you to know that anything yoghurt sends the powers of the Holy Spirit right through me and I instantly begin speaking in tongues. True story. So get ready for this: three kinds of yoghurt. 
One regular yoghurt mixed with a little bit of honey. One ‘oreo cookie’ of yoghurt: two barely sweet wafers, with cold yoghurt and some citrus – mostly orange, but with a hint of lemon too – compote inside. And then frozen yoghurt: no, silly American – not in a cone, but literally, yogurt shaped into a ball and then kept in the freezer – served with a little bit of cinnamon for dipping. As if that weren’t enough, the server instructed us that the frozen one was to be eaten ‘with our hands.’ We follow instructions well.

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