Tzoutzouka (slang for ‘adorable, pretty woman) is a new restaurant opened by Antonis Liolis in mid-May 2021 and has already become a success among the city’s top foodies, without letting its popularity get to its head.
Located in Rouf, an unremarkable yet slightly trendy post-industrial Athens neighbourhood and set in an old-style kafeneion with tables on the pavement, this low-profile, high flavour is a must if you love the combination of authentic Greek tastes and comfort food made with playful and loving intent.
Tzoutzouka’s charismatic and deeply intuitive kitchen artist, chef Argyro Koutsou used to be a Project Manager organising major cultural events until she stopped to question what she wanted to do with the rest of her life and turned to professional cooking ten years ago. Having grown up in a family with a strong connection to fishing and in which everyone cooked, she loved to observe how things are done in the kitchen from an early age.
“When I was 17 my mother broke her arm and had to be hospitalised, so I asked her what my dad could eat for dinner. She said she would have made him a lamb fricassee but I could just cook him some potatoes with eggs,” she says. “Instead, I cooked the fricassee, which I ended up throwing out, together with the cooking pot! But I became set on learning how to cook well after that. I had six months free before starting college, so I ordered a series of books that arrived month by month titled ‘Cooking Around the World’ and I started making every single recipe – which was challenging at the time because we didn’t have all the ethnic food stores we have in Athens today – so I made do with the ingredients I could get my hands on.
“Then I began to travel abroad and explore different cuisines, trying everything that excited and intrigued me, and finding wonderful flavours in all cuisines. Here, I cook the kind of food I like to eat at home and prepare for my loved ones. My dishes have a quirky side, what we call in Greek ‘alitiko’, (an ‘alitis’ is a tramp, outcast, vagabond) like my trahana* with mackerel and chilli’. Basically, I like to make comfort food that’s prepared according to professional-style cooking practices, for example using broths or sauces one wouldn’t generally make at home, but without needing to be technically brilliant. I don’t care about things looking perfect, I want the result to be unique, deeply satisfying and unpretentious,” says Argyro.
“The menu changes every few months according to the season and what ingredients are fresh at that time. There are some signature dishes, however, that don’t change. My favourite dishes are the trahanas, ewe casserole in a rich red sauce, aglio olio with anchovy, and fava with pickled calamari, but I love all the dishes I create, they’re like my children! I cook with the feeling of creating something that will nourish and nurture whoever eats it and transmit my love for the food and cooking.”
The wholesome and flavour-packed portions are large and very reasonably priced, in a near-anarchic answer to the overpriced and tiny – and sometimes unimpressively flavoured – portions one gets in haute cuisine. We started with a Greek salad, served only during summer when tomatoes are ripe and tasty and taramosalata with squid ink, which we generously slathered on thick hunks of sourdough bread. We went on with the smooth panna cotta with prentza cheese from Zakynthos and caramelised cherry tomatoes, sprinkled with crunchy sea salt; trahanas cooked to a soul-huggingly thick, creamy consistency enriched by mascarpone, topped with smoked mackarel and seasoned with lemon, chilli and thyme and fluffy meatballs cooked in a tomato sauce and served atop handmade hilopites short pasta and aged parmesan cheese.
Everyone at the table was beaming with satisfaction by the end of the meal when our spoons battled over the chocolate ganache with orange and the lemon mousse made with white chocolate. With glasses emptied to the last drop – the restaurant has a wine list of around 20 top quality labels – we left feeling we had met people who welcomed us into their wonderful food tribe and already anticipating our next visit.
Well known Greek American chef Diane Kochylas described Trahanas in the following way: “Trahana is one of the oldest foods in the Eastern Mediterranean, a tiny, pebble-shaped grain product that varies widely all over Greece. For the most part, it evolved as an ingenious way to preserve milk. Trahana is made with either semolina, wheat flour, bulgur or cracked wheat. Milk, buttermilk, or yogurt are mixed into flour or wheat to form a thick mass. In Thrace, a Lenten trahana is made with flour and vegetable pulp, seasoned with sesame seeds and hot pepper flakes.”
A: Meg. Vasiliou 32, Athens
Main image courtesy of One Man