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Monday, 10 September 2012

Fish restaurant (Ψαροεστιατόριο)

The word 'fish' in Greek is synonymous with 'expensive', which is why we rarely go to fish tavernas (ψαροταβέρνες - psa-ro-ta-VER-nes). Looking through my blog, the last time I visited a fish taverna with my family was 2-and-a-half years ago. A limited variety of fresh fish and seafood is affordable when you buy it and cook it yourself, so it would have to be a very special occasion that would have us sitting by the shore's edge eating seafood that we haven't cooked ourselves.
The view before at the car park, with kritamos weed (rock fennel, also known as samphire) in the foreground - it is made into a pickle.
There are a number of fish tavernas in Hania, mostly centred in the area of Nea Hora, a great place to take a stroll out to the Venetian harbour on a good day. Most places are reasonably priced there too, as there are a lot of fish tavernas competing side-by-side. You'll find most regular favorite taverna meals there, like fried calamari. A fish taverna is the best choice for fried calamari because it has a high turnover for this dish, so their supplies of calamari will be constantly replenished.

But if you want a special meal, something out of the ordinary, which you don't mind paying a little more money for than what you usually pay for a meal out, then you will choose a restaurant (εστιατόριο - es-ti-a-TO-ri-o), not a taverna. There are such places in Hania, sometimes off the tourist track, which means that their high prices are for the locals, not the one-time stopovers. Hence, they need to be really good at what they do in order to survive in the present economic climate.
The restaurant is definitely at the high-class end - there aren't so many places like this in Hania.
The main difference between a Greek restaurant and a taverna is often described on other websites as in the way the food is served, ie as a main plate for each individual diner (restaurant), or having all the dishes placed on the centre of the table (taverna) and each diner piles their plate with what they want. But restaurants also offer hors d'oeuvres that are placed in the middle of the table for each diner to take their share. A restaurant will serve your drinks in stem glasses, whereas a taverna uses plain glasses; a restaurant will use linen tablecloths while a taverna uses paper; a restaurant is also a classier joint than a taverna, and it is usually more expensive. A restaurant is not for everyone's pockets. 
The crashing waves were loud but the atmosphere they created was very romantic; it was not too windy or cold to eat outdoors (in Northern Europe, it had been one of the coldest summer evenings of the season, with frost appearing in Scotland).
My husband recently surprised me when he took my whole family out for a meal and didn't tell us where he was taking us. He took me to a place I had never been to, one he had visited with friends a couple of times. When he came home, he described the sumptuous meal he had had there: kakavia still steaming from the pot, platter-sized sinagrida grilled over charcoal, fresh (not frozen) deep fried whole calamari that had not been cut up into rings, which you don't see in many places. The friends he had gone there with were either in the well-off category, so money was no object, or they were διαπλεκόμενοι*, which of course allows them to eat where they like how they like and at the price they are willing to pay. As we are neither, we know that this is a special outing, and there would have to be a special reason why we would be going here (which basically was that we didn't take a summer holiday this year due to costly home renovations, and it was our wedding anniversary).

The fish restaurant was located in one of the most historically important suburbs of Hania, where foreign embassies were located during the time when Hania was the capital of the island, and Crete had not yet become part of the modern state of Greece. To get here, you take some narrow almost hidden roads out of the main town. The west coast of the urban prefecture of Hania is one of its best kept secrets, which derives great historical value from the tanneires that were once located there.  

I placed the kritamos branch over my plate.
It was early evening when we arrived at the fish restaurant, and there were not many diners there. We hardly ever go out for a meal in the evening, so it felt strange not to be able to explore the area as I usually do whenever I go to a place I haven't been to before. Most importantly, I could not detect all the flora, save the obvious kritamos bushes which grow close to the sea. The restaurant was small: in the winter it operates indoors, but in the summer, no one wants to sit indoors, so there is a space right next to the shore that holds up to 60 or so diners. As the street leads to a dead end, more tables could be put up presumably in an instant.

We couldn't sit quite where we wanted because the tables right at the shore front were reserved. That's another sign of the upmarket status of this eaterie. For people to be reserving their spaces (something practically unheard of at a local cheap meat taverna), we're talking about regular customers who know how popular this place is. And if you are a regular customer of an expensive restaurant, you are probably well off.

Fish tastes good when it's fresh. When fish is very fresh, it really doesn't need many ingredients to cook it with. Some olive oil, a bit of garlic, maybe some wine, and that's all. That's what we got when we dined at this fish restaurant: the freshest lightest taste and scent of fish that even a non-fish eater would appreciate. The plates came one after the other at just the right time, after we had savoured enough from one plate before we moved on to the next. Everything was steamed or braised or fried or boiled to perfection.

As we dined, we took in the atmosphere, of the by-now almost full tables and chairs. A couple of groups of old-age diners, another couple of groups of old-age men (presumably using the restaurant as their local kafeneion), two families in their beach wear (even so late in the dark!) consisting of very young good-looking men and skinny wives, all wearing brand label clothing, and another family group of very conventionally well-dressed middle-aged folks who were calling each other σύτεκνε (or συτέκνισσα, both of which mean 'parent of the same child', which means that one person has baptised the child of another person, ie they are the godparents of their friend's child).
Whole-fried calamari, thick hand-cut potatoes, steamed mussels, sea urchins served in their own juices with olive oil and tzatziki. Just one complaint: the serving sizes of the calamari and mussels did not need to be so big - they could have been smaller (and cheaper).
The candles on the rocky shore continued to burn; we had a view as far out as the Venetian harbour, with the red light on top of the lighthouse barely visible. All in all, it was a magical evening for us, because the atmosphere, the food and the location felt very opulent to us country folk, and we all had a rare glimpse into the chic life of the upper Haniotiko class with whose shoulder we never rub.
Mussels are not readily available fresh in Hania - I've never seen them on sale at the fresh fish stores in the town (and we have plenty of them), except perhaps on special fasting days when they are sold just for one day, so you can see why I was keen to have them.
When we had licked the plates clean and we had taken in enough of the atmosphere, we asked for the bill. So the waiter cleared the table of the empty plates and glasses, and he bought us the customary fruit-desert-and-raki sweet treat, as all Cretan tavernas do at the end of the meal, to help the diner clear the palate before leaving the restaurant, together with which he bought us the bill, enclosed in a little leather pocket book, with the restaurant's business card. When I opened it, I got a little shock: it did not concern the price of the meal (we knew it was going to be expensive), but I could not believe that there was NO RECEIPT included in the pocketbook (and if you are Greek, no doubt, you will know quite well what I mean).

"They haven't rung this up on the till," I whispered to my husband.

"Let's not cause a scene," he tried to warn me, because he sensed this was bound to happen, after having dined here with his διαπλεκόμενοι mates, who got cheap fresh fish meals for dishes that other people spend twice as much on. There are plenty of λαμόγια** in Hania, because it is generally a rich town - it has both a tourism and an agriculture sector, which means it has year-round business opportunities, which keep people working seasonally in different jobs throughout the year. That's a very profitable combination - most places have only one sector to rely on year-round, or just seasonally - and sometimes no sector at all.
Linguine with pesto and calamari - this was voted as the best dish we tried.
"I'm going to ask for it when he comes back," I warned him. At the same weekend, 8 workers in his sector (the notorious Athenian taxi drivers, one of whom we knew from a friend of a friend) were caught ripping off the state (not just the customers - that is so blasé now) by evading taxes, using a micro-chip attached to their taxi metre, which deletes the fare once a button is pressed. We know what it means to be branded tax evaders and rip-off artists through our own business interests, even though we aren't; but no matter how much we plead that we are loyal to the state, we are constantly lumped into the same basket with all the other basket cases.

We pay tax on everything we buy and every service we offer; I always pick up a receipt after every monetary transaction, and so far, I have had no problems doing this, despite the news stories insisting that most Greek islands are tax evading areas in the country. Perhaps I don't go to places where tax evasion occurs - until now, that is! Tax evasion simply cannot take place everywhere: supermarkets, petrol stations, mini-markets, greengrocers, the hairdresser, all my regular haunts give me a receipt. How on earth did this high-class restaurant owner think she was going to get away with it, from a simple never-seen-her-before customer like myself? Surely that's the customer you most suspect - or perhaps, you don't need to fear them because your customers consist of διαπλεκόμενοι? What happens if your customers are also involved with the διαπλεκόμενοι? Time to change tact, obviously.
Lightly fried cuttlefish in a wine sauce
When the waiter came back, I gave him the money (I didn't think of asking them if they accepted credit cards, but my husband wanted to pay for the meal so as not to burden my own expenses) and reminded him to bring the receipt with the change, which he did. The receipt was printed from the electronic cash register without listing what we had ordered - it simply had one total charge of €77 with the word 'DRINKS' next to it (all we drank was 2 soft drinks and 2 beers), which to my mind is a clear message from the restaurant owner that no receipt would have been issued if I hadn't asked for it. Of course, my airy-fairy tales of suspicion and under-hand dealings could all be a case of misunderstanding, but I never asked for an explanation, so I shall never really know the truth.
Grated carrot in syrup served over yoghurt with fresh watermelon and raki (tsikoudia - Cretan firewater) - this desert is 'on the house'.
The restaurant is a small business, but it has a clear clientele. It caters for people who still have some cash reserves. Perhaps it also caters for those who are still wondering how to avoid doing that they have to do for the sake of the state's advancement and not just their own personal one. Somehow I doubt that the other customers bothered to ask for a receipt that night. They may continue to avoid doing the done thing, but eventually the world will catch up with them, through simpletons people like myself demanding that they change or face the consequences.

*Try translating this link with an online translator; it's not enough to think that such people exist: you need proof, which you can only get by having contact with them.
** Do the same as above with this link.

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