(NOTE: We traveled all night Sunday, slept all day Monday, spent Tuesday and Wednesday wandering around in awe of Chania, and only now has life become quiet enough to allow for a blog entry.)
The residents of Crete are Cretans. Their art is Cretan. They speak a dialect of Greek called Cretan. Cretans are proud of their home and their culture, and even though most of them speak fluent English, few are aware of the word “cretin” (note the difference in spelling) and what it implies in the American vernacular.
All of which is to help me introduce Cretan cuisine, which is unfailingly sumptuous and never cretin in any sense of the (latter) word.
Last night, we ventured to an unexplored neighborhood, one rich with handsome restaurants. There we found scores of tablecloth-covered tables under a canopy of sprawling grape vines, cooling in the soft breeze of the Mediterranean evening. Since most restaurants in Chania are out of doors with tables on the sidewalks; and since this area was essentially nothing but a sidewalk, we literally walked through six or seven restaurants before choosing Taverna Strata.
It was a good choice. We were barely seated before two foggy glasses of ouzo appeared at our table, “on the house.” (Cretans are fond of that phrase. Table water is often on the house – unlike Spain, where we always paid for it – and in Chania, a little aperitif before dinner is often on the house. It whets the appetite. Give ’em ouzo, then bring out the menu.)
The wine at Taverna Strata is made on the premises and dispensed from barrels. Had to have some of that. “A litre, please!”
A few glasses later, and even more glassy-eyed from the Greek menu, “McGreeky,” our waiter, sat down beside Louise to explain every option. (Some may recall “McDreamy,” my neurosurgeon, from an earlier post. Louise is fond of naming her handsome Mediterranean men.) The restaurant is family owned; the recipes are all Grandma’s (of course), and by the time he finished, McGreeky had Louise drooling (I chose not to investigate the cause). How could we choose?
“Have the combination plate for two!” Of course! A bit of everything: lamb, pork, beef, chicken, stuffed tomatoes, potatoes, stuffed peppers, stuffed vine leaves, stuffed eggplant, yoghurt dip, eggplant dip, a layered vegetable pastry, something made with phyllo dough and spinach – all served on a plate about the size of a manhole cover, with bread, olives, and herb butter on the side.
This may sound like a mountain of food – and it was – but the ouzo and the litre of wine emboldened us with confidence. We can do it!
We didn’t. And McGreeky, bless his heart, offered to pack up the leftovers, which he brought back to the table with sliced watermelon (dessert) and two shots of raki – “on the house.”
This was probably the most enjoyable dining experience of my life. Al fresco with a soft breeze and even softer chatter, personable service, and tons of remarkable food. Grandma knew what she was doing.
Which takes me back to the beginning of this post – the bit about Cretan. Cretan cuisine, as it turns out, is just my style: hardly formal (eating meat – which is typically served in small chunks – with a knife and fork is unexpected and impractical), healthy (fresh ingredients; lots of olive oil), indescribably delicious, and served in quantities ample enough to justify doggy bags (does anyone call them doggy bags anymore?). I even liked McGreeky, in spite of his attraction to my wife. (Hell, I’m attracted to her, why shouldn’t a handsome young Cretan be too?)
And with that word – Cretan – I conclude. Hello (“yia sou”) from Greece and the lovely island of Crete, where the food, hospitality, and “on the house” are all noteworthy and exceptional.