Friday, 24 June 2011

Skoufos and Oinos: The Beret and Wine (Σκούφος και Οίνος)

I was recently persuaded by a student to take up an offer on Groupon: 35 euro for 5 shampoo/formula/styling sessions (original cost 145 euro). It sounded like a good bargain, and I can say it met my expectations. I was disappointed only when it finished (I was then charged 17 euro for the same session, minus the formula). In any case, I received many more offers through the mail for all sorts of other Groupon offers, including holidays to Greek islands, sunglasses, swimwear, automobile spare parts, feng shui fountains, Chardonnay 6-packs, among others, such as which make up the consumer culture that the whole world is being forced to live by the few handfuls that create global trends and direct world markets.

 προσφορά για Σκούφος και Οίνος Χανιά
Skoufos kai Oinos prides itself on its authentic French bistro atmosphere.

Among those offers, I received one for a discounted fine dining experience: a meal for two at a restaurant by the Venetian port of Hania, at Skoufos kai Oinos. Dining a la carte, at a restaurant where equal emphasis is placed on all aspects of the dining experience, where the food is just as important as the decor and service is quite different from my regular dining experiences in Hania. Even in our London and Paris travels as a family, the places we chose to eat out at never fitted within this general frame. The last time I ate out in this way was probably over two decades ago, in another continent. I decided to take up this offer to treat my children to a novel experience. Here's how the evening turned out for us.

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We arrived at Skoufos kai Oinos at our booking time of 7.30pm, which is actually quite early for dining out in Hania. That explains why we were the ony customers for a while. The place got busy just as we were getting ready to leave, and even then, darkness had not enveloped the sky!

The restaurant is located in the yard of a private house. Limited outside seating poses problems in the summer (in Crete, we simply don't eat indoors then). As the restaurant is located on the road running parallel to the Venetian port of Hania, there's no view of the sea. Despite this, it was very heartening to see both tourists and locals coming and going, just as we were leaving. Even though the area is considered touristy due to the immensely significant architectural sights (the Venetian-built shipyards are located here, the backs of which you can see in the photo), the area has been left to the elements, probably because it's found on the eastern side of the harbour, an area that has always been associated with the lower socio-economic strata of Hania (the western side of the port is more developed).

A waiter welcomed and guided us to the table of our choice, which was laid with a simple fabric placemat. The discount offer had a set menu for two: prawns, salad, salmon and stuffed tenderloin. We were dining a la tre, so we all got menu cards to 'help' our 'extra' diner choose his meal. This was when the first 'shock' was felt. 

 The table setting can be easily replicated by any taverna; it really is time to get rid of the plastic-lined paper tablecloth! The menu card was also available in English (and most likely other languages, since tourists also use the restaurant).

"There's nothing in this menu that I like, Mum," my son said. I've always given the children a menu card to pore over wherever we go. Greek taverna menus contain standard fare, arranged in a standard way; this restaurant menu did not resemble them in any way at all!

"But if I order the chicken, I also have to have salad!" he moaned. It took a little time for my son to be convinced that he didn't actually need to eat the salad (mainly because there were two other vegetarian-friendly diners at the table). The special offer did not include drinks, so I decided to add a bottle of San Pellegrino* to the experience.

oinos kai skoufos restaurant
When the level of service is this high for a bottle of mineral water, it really does endless good in setting the mood.

The salad came first, accompanied by some very French-looking bread and highly scented olive oil (full of aromatic fresh minced peppers). This was immediately followed by the prawns. We really didn't take very long to devour them all.

oinos kai skoufos restaurant oinos kai skoufos restaurant
The salad was dressed in a light vinaigrette, which gave it a moreish taste and eradicated the desire to mop up the excess dressing as we usually do with Greek salads. As for the prawns, I really need to find a recipe that replicates this dish as closely as possible; the mastic flavour of the sauce was very subtle. It masked the fishy scent and lent the meaty prawns a sweet flavour. Note the small servings - this meal was created to savour the tastes, not to fill the gut.  
oinos kai skoufos restaurant
I'm pretty sure I know the baker, whose baguette shaping skills single him out in Hania (see above photo). The olive-oil-and-bread proved an immense hit among my kids, the only truly recognisable Cretan part of the meal. As you can see, my daughter is a very good eater. Among the appetisers, my son found the bacon bits in the salad 'yummy', especially in combination with the olive oil and bread, and the water ("plain, no bubbles, please") 'exquisite'.
oinos kai skoufos restaurant oinos kai skoufos restaurant

The mains were beautifully presented: chicken fillet with fresh salad, lightly grilled salmon with basmati risotto and the most popular dish (by unanimous vote after we all tried each others' dishes), tenderloin stuffed with mozzarella and basil served on a bed of sauteed julienned vegetables. which was also the most intricate: the salmon and chicken were just that, but that pork had been changed beyond the initial meat cut.  The waiter had previously explained the changes that had been made to the menu due to seasonal variations, and he also asked me how I'd like the salmon cooked. Greeks generally like their meat/fish well-cooked, something which goes against fine dining trends by Western standards; for the question to be posed to the diner shows that there have been problems with past diners who thought the fish was cooked too rare for them. This should be interpreted as a cultural culinary preference, not a sign of ignorance.

oinos kai skoufos restaurant
oinos kai skoufos restaurant oinos kai skoufos restaurant
The 'wandering fork' syndrome is de rigueur in Crete. It also gave my fussiest eater a chance to try new food. After this experience, he can safely say that he really does not like fish.
oinos kai skoufos restaurant

Normally, we don't order dessert (and it wasn't included in the special offer, either), but the meal was quite special today, so we decided to go for the full Monty: strawberry cheesecake and fruit tart.

oinos kai skoufos restaurant oinos kai skoufos restaurant
Initially, two servings of cheesecake were brought to the table, even though we ordered two different desserts. In a formal setting such as this one, it's important to remember the customer's right to point out a mistake on the part of the waiting staff (or simply to complain).

All in all, the meal lived up to our expectations, and it provided that breath of fresh air needed to lift our spirits** in a country run by lame politicians, thwarted by global politics, and stigmatised by self-interests. Price of the meal (with a discount coupon) at Skoufos kai Oinos: 46.50 euro.

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My reservations on the food side of the meal mainly involve food safety and imported produce. Salmon is an imported product, used in a similar way to locally fished swordfish. It probably wasn't necessary to have a juicy fat blackberry (most likely from Mexico) in the tart when we are now in the midst of the local stone fruit season. The huge raw mushrooms (probably from Poland) in the salad reminded me of the recent E.coli outbreak. One possible reason why we don't suffer from food recalls or tainted food products in Greece is probably because in Greek cuisine, food is cooked really well, which is what you would be led to understand by the waiter's comment concerning the salmon. This is something that Western culture doesn't do so much with vegetables - it's looked down on to boil vegetables because they 'lose their nutrients' - and the same goes for meat: a Cretan cook would never serve his/her guests undercooked meat. If it's not falling off the bone, then it's deemed undercooked. It's simply not part of our culinary culture and it isn't a sound principle in a world where processed industrialised food creates new food safety risks. Coincidentally, my daughter tried one of the mushrooms but she didnt like it: 'it tastes a little like plastic, Mum'. Had it been cooked along with the bacon in the salad, I am sure she would have liked it.

The menu had been changed slightly from the previous season's, and the menu card showed a fixed printed menu which means that it can't vary unless an extra printed menu is presented to reflect the changes. This will probably raise costs and effort on the owners' part; the restaurant was quite small but it was also busy looking (nice to see of course - they must have done their fair share of advertising and marketing). Costs are going to factor markedly in the coming year, when restaurants (from September 2011) will be required to add 23% VAT to meals (at the moment, it's 13%). This will inevitably sound the death knell for restaurants - either that, or Greeks will simply learn to be obedient and diligent Europeans who don't go out often for a meal and like to cook cheap processed food bought from LIDL, like the hard-working German, the trade-oriented Dutchman or the stiff-upper-lip Englishman (something we know full well will never happen; the Greek state may have gone down the toilet, but the Greek identity has no intention of going down with it).

What makes Skoufos and Oinos special is that it is different among the Cretan food scene, and it does answer to the needs of a group of more discerning diners. These people are mainly the younger generation (apparently, females find it more alluring than males, according to the facebook page created for the restaurant), people who want more than just an old-fashioned steak and fries, the kind usually served up at tavernas with very little difference among eateries. The servings were relatively moderate compared to the servings at a traditional taverna - but the complete meal was very filling, and it contained a good variety of items. If the servings were larger, it would have been difficult to finish, plus, there is no reason why the plates must be full to the brim anyway. Who does this appeal to again? Young people of course, the future of Greece, because they are tired of being served the same old meals, through the same old regime and the same old politicians. Their menu choices reflect their desire for a radical change to the whole system.

*Wine would have been much more appropriate, but I thought about the implications: first to my wallet, and then to my driving abilities.  
** Some people believe that children don't understand the full implications of the economic crisis. My kids knew about the discout coupon, and they know why we can't have experiences like this one again too soon.

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