Monday, 7 April 2014

Ntounias (Ντουνιάς)

Ntounias is located in the little mountain village of Drakonas, about 25 kilometres out of Hania. You can only get there slowly because the narrow road leading to the village is full of bends and curves.

Drakona has had a new lease of life due to Stelios Trilirakis' initiative: he has created a seasonal menu of slow-cooked dishes, all based on local produce that he grows/raises himself in the area of the restaurant.

When you slow-cook family meals on a daily basis from scratch, you tend to view the process as second nature. I'd heard much about Ntounias' slow-food taverna, but given that I am a slow-food cook myself, I was a little slow to get there.

I'm not easily impressed by food places because I am a highly creative locavore myself, but I have to admit that at Ntounias, I met my match: it is the first time I have ever eaten at a restaurant where the meals do not follow standard recipes, there are more vegetarian meals being served than meat-based dishes, and the same meal will taste different due to the seasonal variations of the ingredients used.
Broad beans (faba beans) cooked in their pods are a Cretan particular. Stelios was particularly impressed on seeing my children eating this dish - adults often warn their children against eating broad beans out of the fear that it may be harmful to their health (due to the enzyme deficiency associated with broad beans). 
In a similar fashion to what famous novelists say about the books they write - that they are the kind of books they themselves would like to read - Stelios cooks the kind of food that he wants to feed to his family on a daily basis.
Braised broccoli and califlower with xinohondro (wheat-and-milk rusk added to meat and vegetable stews for extra flavour).
When you arrive at Ntounias, you will notice two clay wood-fired 'parasia' cooking away unattended. One usually has a terracotta pot on it, and the other has a frying pan full of chipped potatoes sizzling away.
We've been to Ntounias twice. In mid-February, it was fine and very sunny. On our second visit last Sunday, it was raining. 
It may look like a gimmick, but when you enter the restaurant, you will find that there are no gimmicks. A simple setup of tables and chairs fills the indoor seating area. When the shop is full, outdoor seating is set up, usually by the diners themselves. There is also an outdoor seating area set on a rise, but that is clearly for good weather use - I will get a chance to try it out in warmer weather.
White has many shades - goose egg (a present from Stelios). 
At Ntounias, you won't find the classic plastic-lined paper tablecloth that most tavernas in Greece use. Unironed white tablecloths are set upon shabby-chic pink table coverings, laid with cutlery and crockery that do not match. It feels like home to me - the vinyl table covering was disposed of long ago, and I hate ironing, doing as little of it as I can possibly get away with.
Lahanodolmades - rice parcels served with yoghurt. 
Stelios is the head cook and head waiter, much like the cook in most Greek homes. By reciting the menu to all his customers - there is no menu card of any form, - he gets to personally greet and chat with every single customer, even when the shop is full.
Another Cretan particular - koilidakia, tripe and intestines stew, usually served at Easter. 
If Stelios' descriptions are not enough for you, you can enter the tiny steaming wood-fired cooking area to see the dishes Stelios and his team worked on for the day. You just open the terracotta pots and check the contents.
Left to right: Lahanopita (cabbage pie) - Spanakopita (spinach pie) - Kreatotourta (meat pie).

All the meals are slow-cooked and kept warm in their terracotta pots, which means that grilled or microwaved meals do not exist at Ntounias. Filo pastry is rolled out in rudimentary form, bread is baked in oblong shapes, wine comes straight out of the barrel.
Stelios makes his own wine...
Food that is cooked very slowly should be eaten very slowly; each dish that you order is bought out one by one, so that you can savour its magic individually, giving equal time to each meal. If you find it difficult to choose which meals you wish to savour, you can have half-servings instead.
... and his own bread.
Well-cooked decent food should not be a privilege reserved for just a few. It should be available to anyone who wants it, as long as they are willing to spend the time needed to produce/prepare it.
We joked with Stelios that we would be willing to fry potatoes for him all day long as long as we can have as many as we want to eat. He told us that he wouldn't have a problem with that if we were willing to dig them out of the earth first.
Ntounias is very well-priced, and you get more than just a meal; the drive from Hania to Drakonas follows a scenic route, you will meet many animals on the way (you really need to drive slowly), it is one of the main wine-producing regions of Hania (you will pass many grapevines), and there are two different roads to get you to the same destination (either via Mournies-Panayia-Gerolakkos or Fournes-Meskla-Zourva), allowing you to cover a large area during a single trip.
Ntounias is open every day except Tuesday. Booking (by phone) is not essential, but if you don't get there early, you may not find a seat unless you set up your own table yourself. For more photos, check out my facebook album

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