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Thessaloniki/Northern Greece


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Dinner tonight at a Cretan (Cretin?) restaurant  in downtown Thessaloniki whose name I never caught (starts with an alpha and is not the one Lonely Planet recommends). Great bread, taramosalata. Fantastic roast pork stew and some of the tastiest marinated white anchovies I have had - marinated enough to still be meaty without being overly fishy.

Can't say the same for my grilled squid. Was billed as being fresh and may have been, but I think an entire grilled squid may be too much for me.

We got in to Thes quite a bit later than planned and were starving and tired, so we were not as picky as we could have been. Tomorrow: inland into Thessaly!

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Smack against the rocks of Meteora in Kalambaka is a small, dingy tavern called Koka Roka. We are here in the extremely low season. Hotels and restaurants are closed, and the town is dead. Koka Roka was our last hope before hopping in the car and going to the next town over.

And it was terrific.

An old Greek grandmother type (half inch thick bifocals, cardigan etc.) greeted us into a dining room filled with wood smoke from a roaring fireplace. We were given no menus but did have a choice of meat: lamb, pork, or chicken "cooked on grill!" she said. We went with lamb, and took her offer of tzatziki and Greek salad to start. I had the house made ouzo as well.

Color me surprised when the lamb - chops, mostly - came out, were sandwiched between two squares of thick wire lattice, and were put on top of the wood fire, on a grill rack I had not seen. This was only a few feet from us, a Greek barbecue in January!

The grilled lamb was salty, with a squeeze of lemon, and fresher than any lamb I think I have had. It was cooked to a perfect temperature, with cracking and glistening fat as an added bonus. We literally devoured our plates, as well as the very garlicky tzaziki and the standard salad.

This experience makes me wonder about the Lonely Planet guide to Greece, sad because 90% of the tips I've gained from Lonely Planet, in contrast to Trip Advisor Restaurants, have been great. We have eaten five meals in Greece so far excluding hotel breakfasts, in two cities. One was a Lonely Planet rec while four have not been. The L.P. recommendation was over priced and just ok; the two dinners we have had on whims, including the one described above, have been wonderful. We would have never found Koka Roka if just relying on Lonely Planet.

ETA: idle curiosity led me to the trip advisor entry on Koka Roka. Let's just leave it as YMMV.

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OK, so maybe Lonely Planet has won back some points.

On our last night in Thessaloniki, after four long hours of driving, we decided to stretch our legs and walk, and see where whims would take us.  We ended up walking on the seaside strip, from the pier to the White Tower, skipping all the bars/cafes filled with youngs and youngs at heart, bars virtually indistinguishable from one another down to the thumping bass. I would have been all about those places once upon a time, but with a nine-month old? Not so much.

We ended up at the White Tower ravenously hungry, with no idea where to go.  That's when I saw a sign for Myrsini, a restaurant I knew had a "top pick" marking from Lonely Planet and had looked intriguing. (Thank goodness I know a bit of the Greek alphabet -- no English signage at all!)

What proceeded was the best meal we had in Greece, and frankly one of the best meals I have had in months.

We ordered the chef's meze variety plate, two sides, and one dish described as entree sized.  In order of deliciousness from worst on up:

The OK

-- a plate of chickpea puree was a good go-to between other, more delicious bites, but this had little flavor.  The texture was nice though, and mixed well with the other dishes.

-- vinegar-smoked sausages were good after the first two bites but steadily declined, both as they cooled and as you kept eating.  Less evident than the vinegar smoking was the saltiness.  The pork was clearly high quality.

The Very Good

-- I got to hog a plate of of fava beans cooked with very good olive oil, lemon, parsley, and onion.  The beans were served cold but were cooked well, with a little bite like I prefer my beans.

-- The dolmades were clearly homemade, stuffed with a rice mix and served with a soft sheep's milk cheese.  I love dolmades but Marisa tends to find them greasy, or the grape leaves are underdone. No such problems here.

-- Perfectly cooked cow's liver chunks, served in the same high quality olive oil, cooked with fresh rosemary and vinegar.  A small plate but very satisfying bites.

The Fantastic

-- Roast rabbit.  Roasted and slathered in a fresh tomato sauce, served on rice.  So tender, not gamey at all.  We fought over the last pieces, and I gnawed on the bone, something I never do with rabbit.

The Oh-my-god

-- Never did I think I'd describe a plate of sauteed greens as transcendent, but here we are.  Deep green, slightly bitter radish greens, with a healthy dose of lemon juice, amazing olive oil, and topped with that soft sheeps milk cheese again.  Marisa's eyes got as big as saucers after her first bite, and she did what she normally does with food she loves and assembled a small "perfect bite," set aside to be her last taste of the meal.  We both love sauteed dark greens but have never had radish greens before.  The simplicity of preparation really made this dish, clearly something that emerged from a home kitchen and made it onto the restaurant menu. I'd go back to Thessaloniki for this dish alone.

Here's the best part: the entire meal, with a carafe of white and some raki, cost us 33 euro.  We left 40, as the service was the best we've had in Greece, and walked back to our hotel slowly, pushing a sleeping baby that had managed to charm all of our fellow diners and then had fallen fast asleep during our culinary reverie.

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