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Not so long ago, finding Asian food in Athens was like looking for an oasis in a desert. But as the capital evolved into a hot and hip foodie hub, Asian flavours weren’t far behind. Sushi, bao buns and dumplings are quickly making it into the daily language of Athenian culture in all shapes and forms. Here’s where to go for some delicious Eastern cuisine.
Pink Elephant €€
You’ll find a fair number of Indian restaurants in the centre of Athens, but this place is the Ganesha of them all. It’s been around forever (well, it’s parent establishment in Halandri has), and this central outpost is a welcome member to the Asian food scene in Athens. Elegantly decorated, Pink Elephant softly and pleasantly transports you to the sub-continent. Housed in a neoclassical building from the 1870s, on a quiet pedestrian street between Kolonaki and Exarchia, the restaurant has kept the original layout, with each dining room painted a different colour.
The first thing to order is the baked garlic naan bread: pillow puffy and perfect for dipping into your curry. After that, we have three rules of law, all in the curry department. The first is the chicken tikka masala. It’s pink, it’s sweet, it’s creamy, it’s delicious. Ask for extra spice if you want a bit of a burn. Then there’s the zafrani korma, for those of you who love coconut. We have it with the chicken because the bite-size chunks are tender every time; but you could opt for the shrimp, beef or lamb. And third, when we’re feeling a tad fruity and exotic, we order the mango and pineapple curry. We’ve also indulged in the vindaloo on cold winter days; it’s a dish for the brave. Don’t forget to order a side of the pilau rice to accompany whichever curry you decide on. It’s cooked with a sprinkle of saffron and just the right amount of spice to lift, rather than obscure, the flavours of your main dish.
"The menu is endless, from soups to whole grilled fish, the latter a favourite of their Asian customers."
East Pearl €€
They say you can tell if a Chinese restaurant in Athens is good by the ratio of locals to Chinese occupying the tables. At East Pearl, non-Asians are a minority. This authentic Chinese eatery lies just off Syntagma Square, in the maze of blocks that have been taken over by ethnic food joints. The place is small, with about 10 tables. Only indoor seating is available, and the décor is as typically Chinese as it gets, from the red velvet pillows, to Chinese ideograms, to a very large, very gold, very happy Buddha.
The steamed dumplings never disappoint. Ever. The cold Sichuan noodles with spicy sauce are delicious, with just the right amount of tang, as is the fried rice with shrimp. They prepare everything from scratch, so if there’s a large group of you, don’t expect your order to come at fast-food pace. It’s worth the wait. The menu is endless, from soups to whole grilled fish, the latter a favourite of their Asian customers. Don’t try the sushi here; not because there’s anything wrong with it, but because around the corner is East Pearl’s real ode to Japan, Shiraki.
East Pearl’s Japanese sister is tiny, pretty and calm. From the warm, modern interior, dominated by wood, to the potted white orchids that line the counter displaying fresh cuts of fish, behind which the chef works his magic. The presentation of the food—whether you’ve ordered a bowl of udon noodles with fried tofu or an assortment of 10 maki rolls—is impressive.
The menu is simple, authentic and approachable. There are no pretentious bells and whistles that make you wonder if you should dare to taste something strange or head for a souvlaki instead. A large group of us nibbled on the perfectly steamed edamame, followed with a bowl of the Chirashi sushi—sashimi tuna, salmon, octopus, shrimp and eel on top of a bed of sushi rice, which was almost too beautiful to eat. We had to take our sunglasses and phones off the table to make room for the enormous assortment of colourful maki that came next. A ‘weird’ member of the group ordered the ‘boring’ asparagus roll and only got to have one piece as our chopsticks snapped away the rest. It was delicious.
The feast continued with spicy tuna, salmon, fried ebi, and crab rolls. Inside out, outside in, whichever way you go, this place is a winner. The fish is always fresh, the rice perfectly sticky, with the bonus of an extensive wine list for a place like this. The bottles come as chilled as they should be, even on the warmest summer days.
If you’re staying in the centre of Athens, you will have to travel a bit to get here, but it’s going to be worth it. Walking into the hidden backyard of this restaurant in suburban Kifissia feels like you’ve travelled all the way to Thailand. The décor is Asian hippie chic with hanging lanterns, a jumble of customised antique furniture, and plants climbing up the walls and dangling from the ceiling. This bar-restaurant, owned by the same people as Madame Phu Man Chu, is the successor to the legendary Bar Guru Bar, one of the few Thai restaurants in Athens in the noughties.
They call their cuisine ‘Asian soul food’, inspired by flavours of Thailand, Vietnam and Hong Kong. Soul food or not, there’s plenty to devour here, and it’ll all leave you feeling tangy and warm. We always start with the fish and shrimp dumplings, for they come with the most delicious of dipping sauces. The menu claims it’s as simple as soy sauce and lime, but we swear there’s a secret ingredient in there, as we’ve resolved to eating the dumplings with a spoon to scoop up as much of the sauce as possible. The fried shrimp, Thai fish cakes, and chicken satay are also keepers. Our favourite curry is the red one with shrimp, coconut milk, vegetables, Thai basil and jasmine rice. And call us unadventurous if you must, but we get the Pad Thai every time. At least we switch between chicken and shrimp. The taste of tamarind is just perfect.
"We always start with the fish and shrimp dumplings, for they come with the most delicious of dipping sauces."
Dara Thai €€
In the most unexpected of places, in the middle of a block lined with car repair shops, you see a sign that blends in perfectly with its surroundings, except that it says “Dara Thai” instead of “Auto Service”. But you don’t come here for the location or the impressive décor. This humble, simple restaurant cooks up some of the most authentic Thai food in Athens.
The menu is ambitious and everything looked interesting, so we ordered a lot of dishes. As a result, dinner lasted from late afternoon to well past sundown (Thai done the Greek way). First we had the sate kia (chicken fillets on skewers, marinated in coconut milk and spices) that came with a sweet chili dipping sauce. Good. Then came the kai pat met ma muagn himapaarn—more chicken, but with cashews, peppers, oyster sauce, chili, pineapple and water chestnuts, which made us wish it had more sauce to soak the best steamed rice we’ve ever had. Things got even better with the pad see ew (fried noodles with egg and vegetables) and really, really good with the kai yad sai (pork mince cooked in a tomato sauce and wrapped in an omelette). The yellow pork curry was devoured by a chef in our group, who asked for it to be extra spicy. Creamy and delicious, his only complaint was that the meat to potato ratio could have been more generous.
Tuk Tuk €
Buddhas and gold Asian paw-waving cats, pink walls with oriental posters greet you as you walk into this tiny eatery that calls its kitchen "Thai street food." If this is what street food tastes like, then we'll never go to a real restaurant again. Co-owner and chef Babis Askeridis went backpacking across the Far East at the age of 23, when his endless love affair with the area and its cuisine began. It's quite obviously a true love. Everything is prepared right in front of you in the open kitchen and watching the process is part of the magic here. The aromas of what's cooking will make your stomach rumble.
The idea is to order a lot and to share, like the Thai (and the Greeks) do. We started with the Tom Ka Khai soup that we'd heard was delicious and rumours proved right. It comes in a special bowl that keeps it warm throughout your meal, so you can dip your spoon in whenever you want. Then we had the shrimp and pork dumplings which come so close to what you'd get in Asian food hubs in New York or London, that we almost ordered another round. But then came the Pad Thai (cliché choice, but we gave in to habit and didn't regret it one bit. The order for the next visit has already been set in our heads. Come early (it opens at 5pm) if you don't want to wait in line, or hang around outside peeking into people's plates. Tuk Tuk does not take reservations.
Japan meets Greece at this innovative restaurant. Despite what you might think, these two very different cuisines make a great combination. Seasonal local produce is incorporated into Japanese staples with results like strips of fresh zucchini with miso and smoked eggplant, reminiscent of melitzanosalata, or the cod burger in a steamed bao bun. All plates are meant to be shared, so each person gets to choose a couple of dishes, three if you’re extra peckish. Kids love the Nolan fried chicken, tiny crispy bites that look like popcorn. The grown up palate should never go without the soba noodles with smoked salmon and tahini sauce or the cherry tomato salad with shavings of frozen cucumber, ingeniously garnished with the ripest, crunchiest of seeded cherries.
The staff makes you feel like you’ve met them somewhere before, rarely have to go inside to ask the chef for answers to your questions, and fill you in on the kitchen’s philosophy the minute you sit down. Located on a small, corner site close to Syntagma Square, Nolan is a great choice for both lunch and dinner, though the latter guarantees you a good cocktail or two (the bar is only open in the evenings). If you do go in the evening, make sure to book in advance, as it gets very, very busy.
Madame Phu Man Chu €€
The Historic Centre is undergoing a revival and this folksy Vietnamese opened recently in one of the best spots, on a paved street beside a Byzantine church, with a constant flow of passers-by. The Vietnamese chef is a kung fu master. And Madame Phu Man Chu is the elderly neighbour upstairs after whom the place was named, her face on the restaurant’s logo. Both true stories.
The first time we went, the tiny, narrow, dimly lit but colourful space had just opened. It was winter, and we feasted on the brand new—to Athens— Asian flavours under the massive paper dragon floating above our heads. When the weather got warmer, we went back and sat at the picnic tables outside, people watching as the vivacious French waitress, Sophie, energetically explained the ingredients in each dish. We enjoyed both the spring rolls and the summer rolls that we dipped into a moreish mix of peanut butter and coconut milk. (Ask for them without the beef, if you’re a vegan or vegetarian.) For our main courses, we chose the marinated shrimp with vegetables and glass noodles and the caramel pork. Everything was fresh and delicious, but if you’ve backpacked around Vietnam and tasted the real deal, keep in mind that the flavours have been toned down to satisfy the European palate.
Rouan Thai €€
If you’re catching a ferry from Piraeus or staying in the port for the night, do stop by to indulge your palate at this fiery, laid-back eatery. One of the first Thai restaurants in the city, and definitely the first to attract locals from all corners of Athens, Rouan Thai is one of those unassuming joints that pack a surprising culinary punch.
We’d heard people rave about the Tom Yum soup, so even though it was scorching outside, we went for it. It was the perfect combo of zingy, spicy, and sour, with the coconut milk putting out the flames on our tongues. There wasn’t time to take a photo of the Pad Thai —it disappeared too fast, because it tasted like they hadn’t simply boiled the noodles but stir-fried them to give the classic dish that something special. The green curry came next (you can choose between fried or soup style). We went for the soup, drenched the steamed rice with it, and broke out in a delicious sweat brought on by the perfect amount of spice. The best part of our meal was the Massaman curry with chicken—creamy and sweet, thanks to the peanut butter that infuses this concoction of coconut milk, onions, potatoes and chicken. Yum is the word.
This is not a restaurant per se. It’s the city’s first Tibetan street food joint—a daring effort of its enthusiastic owner, Giannis Dimitriou, who visited Tibet and fell in love with the food. Tibetan cuisine is unheard of in Athens and this place is a leap of faith. Having said that, we’ve been there three times in the past ten days.
With less than a dozen stools, the place is decked out in red and orange with statues of Buddha and an obligatory photograph of the Dalai Lama. Calming Tibetan music plays in the background while you sip on a cup of Himalayan herbal tea. The menu is still small, but is set to grow. There are four types of momos (Tibetan dumplings), filled with vegetables, chicken, beef or pork, which each come with their own dressings of pepper chutney, curry, chili mayo or mango chutney. There’s a tangtse salad, a lightly pickled coleslaw with cracked wheat, which is zingy and delicious. The ‘delicacies’ section includes the unusual lotus root chips (something between a potato and pumpkin chip, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside), served with a matcha tea sauce. Giannis promised us a noodle soup come winter. We can’t wait. The name of the place is the Tibetan name for Mount Everest, meaning “Holy Mother”. Holy mother, indeed.