Ettore Botrini was brought up in Corfu and worked in the family restaurant "Etruscan" there, after briefly training at Martin Berasategui. His Athens restaurant opened in 2011, and was awarded a Michelin star in 2014, which it has retained until now. Mr Botrini seemingly appears on TV a lot here, and was not present in his kitchen tonight. The restaurant is in a converted school in a quiet suburb of the city, around 25 minutes by taxi from the centre. Check the address carefully as our taxi driver appeared baffled until the moment that we pulled up outside, after a lengthy series of detours and manoeuvres. When I copied the address into Google maps it amusingly suggested a destination in the rural United States rather than Athens, so allow enough time for your journey.
The building itself has outside seating as well as an airy modern dining room and a conservatory. There was an a la carte choice as well as tasting menus at €55, €70 and €120. The menu descriptions tended at best towards the florid, and mostly went further off the rails. "The Corfu bourdeto that would like to become Cacciuco (sic) Alla Livornese" was one of the clearer dish titles, which generally appeared to have been written by someone who had consumed an alarming amount of hallucinogenic substances.
The wine list appeared on an iPad, and normally at this point I would tell you something about the scope of the list and give an indication of some sample markup levels. It seems the wrong approach here, since despite several pages of wines being listed, it is unclear as to whether any of these really existed, the wine list turning out to be a work of fiction. I ordered a wine, and the sommelier sheepishly said that the last one had been sold. I tried an alternative - no, that one was finished too. I tried ordering a third wine, a fourth wine, a fifth wine, then a sixth. All were unavailable. I tried to order white, I tried to order red, I tried both cheap and expensive and even tried to order two different champagnes. No dice. Eventually the morose sommelier said that he did have an Austrian Riesling, or possibly a Greek wine as an alternative (but not the one I had tried to order initially), and one wine that they already had open, that we could apparently "finish off". At this point I gave up and we drank beer and cocktails. I have been coming to restaurants a long time now and I have never experienced anything like this. When I asked the sommelier what was going on, he looked suitably crestfallen and said that they were having trouble getting credit from their suppliers, so few wines were available. It was hard to get cross as he looked as miserable and guilty about the situation as any human being could be, and it was presumably not his fault. Surely the sensible move would be to take whatever remnants of a list could be assembled, however short that might be, and just offer that, rather than going through this absurd ritual of pretending to have wines that they did not possess, which is uncomfortable for the customer and makes the restaurant look inept at best. Instead the sommelier spent the evening doing an excellent impression of Marvin The Paranoid Android from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as he moped about the room.
Given the incomprehensible menu and the tragic wine situation, by now we were pretty nervous about what might transpire on the food front. Fortunately the kitchen had its act together. An initial nibble was a miniature "pizza", a disc of cheese and basil mayonnaise with a base of salami (from Corfu) in place of the regular bread base. This was quite a pleasant nibble (13/20) but revealed another service issue. The waitress, just moments before, had asked whether we had any dietary restrictions, and it was explained that one of us did not eat meat. Immediately serving something with salami after this was a tad careless, especially as at this time we were the only diners in the entire restaurant, so she was not exactly under the cosh with pressure.
A further nibble was a wild mushroom macaron with hazelnut and a touch of five spice, though the latter was very subtle indeed. This canapé was more technically demanding and worked well, the texture delicate and the macaron tasting distinctly of mushroom, the hazelnut flavour coming through well too (15/20). A final nibble was egg sabayon with honey, vanilla and bourbon. This sounds odd but the flavours were quite restrained, and the sabayon texture was good (14/20). Bread was made from scratch in the kitchen and was pleasant, in particular olive bread, multi-seed bread also being quite capable (14/20).
My starter was duck papardelle with truffle, and very nice it was too. It was seemingly also flavoured with cocoa and lemon, but these were subtle to the point of invisibility, so what came through was genuinely good quality pasta with deeply flavoured duck ragu and a hint of truffle aroma (easily 15/20). The "risotto reference to Greece" dish (that is how it was described on the menu) turned out to be a regular risotto but with the bizarre toppings of watermelon and coffee. I tasted this and the risotto itself had good texture, though for me the choice of watermelon and coffee as flavours were pretty surreal, even if you happened to enjoy melon and coffee.
A special of the evening was John Dory with a roll of courgette, butter sauce and courgette ice cream on the side. The fish itself was excellent, carefully cooked and having good flavour, though the rolled up courgette was not quite hot. The courgette ice cream was oddly sweet, though the butter sauce was well made. Although this was not quite as it might have been, the quality of the fish and the capable sauce carried the dish through successfully enough (14/20). The other main course was the bizarrely named dish that I mentioned near the beginning of the review. To try and explain it as best I can, bourdeto is a Corfu dish of mixed fish with a spicy tomato sauce. Cacciucco alla Livornese is an ancient recipe for mixed fish stew from Livorno on the coast of Tuscany. This dish also features tomato, with garlic, sage and chilli. The dish that appeared tonight was presumably an amalgam of these recipes. We had John Dory, skate and stone fish with spicy tomato sauce, passion fruit and artichoke purée. Passion fruit seemed to me an eccentric addition, but the strong tomato flavour and quite punchy chilli kick carried the sauce through without incident, and the fish itself was nicely cooked (15/20).
For dessert, "bounty colada" turned out to be caramelised pineapple with rum ice cream, coconut ice ream and actual cream. This was refreshing and enjoyable (14/20). Also good was a dish helpfully called "impermanence", and which was in fact was strawberry with soft meringue, strawberry ice cream and a firm strawberry meringue as a texture contrast, along with flavours of vanilla and port. The fruit flavour was good and the various textures worked well (15/20). Coffee was Nespresso.
Service was well meaning but a long, long way from being capable. At the start of the meal a couple of those little compressed pop-up towel cylinders were left on the table - they mysteriously grow when water is applied, which is mildly interesting the first time you see it but a great deal less so the hundredth time, and a hundred times is way in the rear view mirror for me. My main issue with these is that they actually produce very poor towels compared to the real thing, so are just a shoddy gimmick. In this case the staff actually forgot to pour the water, so the cylinders just sat on the table through most of the meal, until someone finally noticed and sheepishly took them away. The staff seemed to have limited idea of what was in the dishes, which is not great when the menu descriptions are as bonkers as these - another cryptic example was, and I kid you not, "before fasting...oxtail in the way of the trappist monks". It was as if the menu had been written by someone using Google Translate while imbibing an implausible dose of crystal meth. Throw in the understandably depressed sommelier and it was one of the most unintentionally hilarious service operations I have ever seen. At least the waiters were not exactly stretched: I counted exactly twelve diners on a Friday night, and there were half a dozen kitchen staff and almost as many waiters in attendance. The bill came to €93 (£81) each, with cocktails and beer to drink despite my best efforts to order wine.
I hardly know how to score this meal. The food itself was fine, and certainly at least bordering on Michelin star level. The dining space is attractive and the prices not absurd. Yet where to start with the deranged menu descriptions, the vanishing wine list and the lacklustre service? I only score the food in my rating system but you should carefully consider your tolerance for eccentricity bordering on insanity in the service department before booking here. Given the evident lack of paying customers at what should have been a peak service, its future prospects would anyhow seem somewhat murky unless the investors have deep pockets.