It is probably true to say that eating in museum or gallery cafés is, on the whole, a disappointment. At best, it can be glorified canteen food and at worst, it can be really bad canteen food. Things have improved in recent years, but it is hard to produce fresh, interesting food on that kind of scale and for international customers, with hugely varying tastes. There are of course the exceptions – Tate Modern in London is always pretty good, though the menu is a bit limited but looking onto the Thames and the majesty of St Paul’s is always a treat. As I have written before in these pages, the restaurant at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens produces very pleasant light meals – undoubtedly enhanced by the stunning view of the Parthenon. There is however one museum restaurant that I head to purposefully and not solely as part of a cultural visit, and that is the café at the Benaki Museum in central Athens.
The ‘Snack Bar’ (Kυλικείου), as the museum’s information page, with some self-depecration, names it, is situated on the second floor of a gorgeous, neo-classical mansion on Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. It extends over a beautiful sunlit veranda, with views of the National Gardens, the parliament building and the barracks of the famous Evzone guards.
The surroundings are, without doubt, enormously pleasing; the atmosphere is solidly unpretentious.This is a great place to ‘people watch’ – here tourists rub shoulders with Athenian ‘Ladies That Lunch’ and even, from time to time, senior members of parliament.
But somehow, there is absolutely no stuffiness or false ceremony – the tone is set, not least by the vast, tongue-in-cheek mural by cartoonist, Antonis Kyriakoulis, but also by the absolutely, no-nonsense Greek food.
Here you will find the most minuscule Dolamadákia Kasiótika. These are the tiniest of stuffed vine leaves – this particular version is from the island of Kasos. They are famous, not only for their diminutive size but also for the way they are made by rolling, rather than the usual folding technique.
One of the daily staples is a traditional vegetable pie – either marrow, wild greens or spinach. The pie is made ‘Country Style’, Horiátiki, the crust thicker than the usual ‘fïlo’ pastry but just as crisp and light – this is the ‘hortopíta’ of dreams.
There will also be a daily traditional dish – the type of dish most Greeks will be familiar with, just cooked perfectly. Here I have had possibly the best soutzoukakia ever, fabulous lahanodolmádes, perfect stuffed courgettes with avgolémono sauce and amazing stewed cuttlefish with spinach. This is what honest cooking is all about – producing familiar food, but doing it really well and serving it with style and confidence.
On a recent visit I saw on the menu something that I had never had before, a stew of black eye beans with chard. It’s a staple of the Greek repertoire but one that had passed me by. It is a very simple, earthy dish and I admire the integrity and confidence it takes to serve the best of ‘home’ cooking with such panache.
So until my next visit to Benaki, I’ll do my best to reproduce a little bit of it at home.
Black Eye Beans with Chard – Mavromátika mé Séskoula
300 gms dried black eye beans
700 gms chard – rainbow chard if possible – torn into big pieces
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 leek, chopped
180 ml tomato juice
150 ml olive oil
A small bunch of dill, chopped
Salt and pepper
First, give the dried beans a good rinse in a colander, drain and put in a medium sized saucepan and bring to the boil. Leave to simmer for about 10 minutes – you need to have them only partly cooked. Drain ten and leave to one side.
In another casserole heat 3 tabs of olive oil. Put in the chopped onion and leek and allow to cook until soft.
Add the tomato juice, seasoning and half the chopped dill. Bring to the boil and then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes.
Now add the drained beans and about 100ml of olive oil and then add the chopped chard. Leave to simmer until the chard and the beans have cooked and the sauce has thickened a little.
Add the rest of the chopped dill and serve.
This makes a superb vegetarian dish or can be included in a selection of mezé.