This is about the defrocking of a cult hero! About 20 years ago, when we first moved to Athens, Valentina, in the boondocks of Kallithea, a working class neighborhood that is home to many of the most recent Greek immigrants from the farthest reaches of the former Soviet Union, used to be the place we escaped to for real food from one of Greece’s least known regional diaspora populations, the Rossopontioi (Greeks from the Black Sea). The place was refreshingly unadorned. Décor consisted of just a plain glass exterior, white curtains, a few chatchkas, and busty older blonds with mile-high twists of hair sipping tall glasses of vodka and Fanta. Their better halves smoked stinky cigarettes.
Borscht, garlicky carrot salad, meat-stuffed cabbage leaves, and the best skewered meat in Athens were among the dishes we flocked here for. Driving to Valentina 20 years ago was an experience that combined food and social anthropology.
Then the place burnt down, suspiciously.
Then its owner and his family rebuilt it. The new, improved version was really just an updated rendition of immigrant bland, without any real character, less so than before, actually. The menu remained exactly the same.
That could have been a good thing, except that when you have fond taste memories of unique food, a 10-plus-year lapse requires either a leap of faith or a fall into the simmering hostilities of gustatory disappointment. We had the latter and came home with our memories bruised.
The shredded carrot salad with a watered down mayo dressing was so garlicky it repeated on me for two days. The “rossiki”—a Russian-style potato salad that has long been popular in Greece—consisted of, well, chunks of boiled potatoes. Frozen peas dethawed and cooked, carrots and mayonnaise. Like much else, it fell flat on this palate. The pelmeni are like raviolis but with absolutely no finesse. They must buy them frozen and cook them straight from the freezer. The flavor was totally flat and the meat inside popped out like little knobs with the slightest touch of the fork. Blinis, basically crepes, filled with a sour creamy cheese, were the best starch-cheese combo by far. I ordered a bowl of Smetana, which is a silky yogurt dip, to go with the lamb kebab, called saslik. Saslik is also made with turkey (a new addition to the menu) and with pork. It was pretty good. The meat marinates for a long time before it hits the grill on long metal skewers. When served it comes topped with ample shavings of raw red onion and a sprinkling of cayenne.
The garlic in everything haunted me for days afterwards. The meal left me feeling heavy and dense, with none of the ethereal pleasures I had remembered from Valentina’s more youthful days almost two decades ago.
Lykourgou Street 235, Kallithea
Prices: 14-18 euro per person