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Global Foodservice: Down, but dining out

The fine-dining experience at Athens’ top restaurant is surviving the recession

By Anthony Fletcher
November 01, 2012

Not a great deal of good news has come out of Greece recently. The sovereign debt crisis, which has ravaged much of southern Europe, has had a greater impact on this Mediterranean country than almost anywhere else. 

The nation’s public debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 165.3 percent of nominal gross domestic product in 2011, and austerity measures have left many Greeks angry and demoralized. Youth unemployment currently stands at more than 50 percent. 

During such times of economic difficulty, people are inevitably forced to cut back on luxuries. This includes eating out, a national pastime in Greece. Things were made even harder for restaurateurs following the government’s recent decision to raise the value-added tax rates on seafood up to 8 to 10 percent. The tense situation is acknowledged by Christian Potelle, manager of the famous Spondi restaurant in Athens. 

“It’s very painful at the moment,” he agrees. “So we have to work extra hard to always be constantly improving.” 

Since it opened in 1996, Spondi has become a Greek institution. It introduced high-level dining to a country more traditionally focused on informal eateries, like the seafood tavernas found on many of the country’s islands. These are the places where you’ll find Greek dishes such as lakerda, a fish in the tuna family, gavros marinatos (marinated anchovies) and kolios (grilled mackerel). The best kolios, say Greeks, are found on the tiny island of Lesbos.   

The objective behind Spondi, says Potelle, was to introduce a French flair for elegance, refinement and authenticity into Greek dining culture. 

“The owner [Apostolos Trastelis] has always had a real passion for food, and has done a lot of travelling,” he explains. “He thought Greece could maybe do better when it comes to fine dining. This was the beginning of Spondi.”

The restaurant is situated in the leafy Athens suburb of Pagkrati, in a handsome 19th-century townhouse with a stone courtyard and an interior notable for its stone arches and tasteful décor. One of the tree-lined neighborhood’s landmarks is the Panathenian Marble Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. And despite Greece’s well-publicized economic problems, the city squares are still filled with clinking glasses and laughter, and Spondi is still finding its tables snapped up. 

The food, which includes fresh, locally caught seasonal seafood, is heavily French-influenced. 

“The owner brought over our first chef [Arnaud Bignon] from France, and that is when we started to win our Michelin stars,” explains Potelle, himself a Frenchman. “This influence has spread to everyone at the restaurant.” Spondi is currently a two-star Michelin restaurant; the first was awarded in 2002, the second in 2008. 

Today the head chef is Michel del Burgo, another highly experienced French chef who likes to use gourmet ingredients and local specialties. Each month he presents a four-dish menu that emphasizes seasonal ingredients, in addition to a Discovery Menu of some of the chef’s most adventurous creations.  The chef’s seasonal four-dish menu is priced at €69 ($90), while the Discovery Menu is priced at €128 ($167) per person. This mouth-watering menu includes dishes of crab, scallops and sea bass.

In this upscale melange of French and Greek cuisine, seafood’s presence is also unmistakeable in à la carte choices. Seasonal appetizers include langoustines cooked in a consommé with kaffir lime and crunchy vegetables, and sea bass tartare with celery, caviar and oysters. Both of these dishes are priced at €40 ($52). Scallops tandoori with lemon, ginger and young cabbage are priced at €38 ($50). 

Entrées include poached-roasted blue lobster with cepe mushrooms and lobster juice for €55 ($72) and cod with burloti beans, shiitake, ginger and tamarind for
€49 ($64). 

“The challenge for any restaurant is to maintain quality,” says Potelle. “This of course is especially important during a time of economic hardship. But you know, Greece is still very nice. The weather here is perfect, and you have the sea all year!”

In addition to its Michelin stars, Spondi has won numerous other awards. For 12 consecutive years, Spondi has been recognised as the Best Restaurant in Greece by Athinorama magazine, which holds an annual Golden Chef’s Hat competition. And since 2009, the restaurant has been a member of the Grande table du Monde. Times may be tough, but Spondi is proving that insistence on quality and excellence remains a strong business plan.  

Contributing Editor Anthony Fletcher lives in Brussels 


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