It isn’t every day you get invited to a Byzantine themed dinner, and this one promised to be exceptional. As we approached the restaurant on the sprawling grounds of Acrotel Athena Pallas Village, a gentle chanting floated from the doors. The soothing atmosphere of the recorded music stayed with us through the meal – – the perfect backdrop to a relaxing evening.
The restaurant’s name, Hierion, means sacred place or temple. One of several small Byzantine sanctuaries on the property in Halkidiki, this little stone marvel made for a very special dining experience. Only big enough for two long tables, it is exclusive without feeling snobbish. I could envision it as a refectory- a monk’s dining area, perhaps a little on the lavish side. Water flowing from a historical water fountain and warm candlelight complete the transportation to a different age of a different world.
A friendly, charming waiter welcomed us, presenting the first glass of wine as I studied the frescoes of various saints adorning the walls. Tonight’s meal would include recipes based on unearthed manuscripts from the Byzantine period.
As we sat, a ramekin of black olive paste under a glass canopy arrived tableside. The dish lived up to its marvelous presentation. We slathered the tapenade on slices of fresh bread made by the monks at Holy Mount Athos. (The hotel gets a regular supply. Be sure to ask the waiter about his stay in one of the Athos monasteries.) The infusion of black olives, chopped garlic, oregano and olive oil, using olives grown on the property, offered powerful flavor, without overwhelming. It tasted like a kiss of the Mediterranean sun, soil, and fresh air. Chef Gotsis Ilias makes his own blend, and I wish I could have brought home a few jars.
Next came a small cast iron pan of onion sautéed with herbs and eggs- somewhat between a soufflé, frittata, and a quiche. In Greek cooking, this is called a sfougaton: a combination of eggs, cheese, and vegetables, popular from times when household cooks were strapped to provide something filling and delicious, but inexpensive. Makes sense – – Byzantine-era people would have cooked with whatever was available and plentiful then.
The evening featured a number of paired wine selections, with the first white a delightful Greek Assytriko from the monasteries of nearby Mount Athos. Its crisp taste lingered and paired wonderfully with the food offerings.
Next came a salad containing bulgur wheat first boiled in honey, then cooked with varied spices, raw vegetables, and goat feta cheese. Bulgur, an ancient grain, has been updated to an ideal modern day picnic or buffet selection.
The next dish, my favorite, highlighted mushrooms sautéed with fresh onion, served with fried pear slices and petimezi sauce. According to Loney Planet, “petimezi is a non-fermented grape molasses used as a topping for everything from seafood to salad, or as a substitute for honey. Sweetening food with the syrup was standard practice in Ancient Greece—evidence exists that even the Minoans used it.” The sauce made the dish. Its simply divine flavor called me to hold a bite in my mouth longer than usual. I am pleased to report that you can buy petimezi sauce on Amazon. Who knew?
Our entrée came next – – a white fish fillet fried in olive oil sprinkled with mustard powder and garum sauce, presented on a plate garnished with a grapevine leaf. Moist and succulent, it showed why outstanding Mediterranean fare is so highly regarded. The fish melted in my mouth without being oily or encumbered by the taste of frying.
As if that wasn’t enough food, the arrival of a platter of roast Greek-style goat stuffed with garlic, onion and leeks, slow cooked in a clay pot in a wooden oven sent us over the top. We switched to a Cabernet Sauvignon wine, also from vineyards worked by the monks on Mount Athos.
A dessert of homemade puff pastry with dried fruits, nuts, sesame and honey, hardly needed, but oh so appreciated combined with a few final sips of wine to astound my taste buds. I couldn’t eat much, but each small bite came packed with wonder and awe.
After too many glasses of wine, we appreciated the walk back to our hotel room on the lovely illuminated property. This Byzantine experience, much more than just a meal, ranks as one of the dining highlights of my life. I’d go back to Greece, just to repeat the experience.
At 85 Euros per person, including the wine, it is outstanding value. Naturally, reservations are essential.