Φηρά, Santorini, Fira, Greece

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This restaurant has as its chef/owner Mr Nikos Pouliasis, and has been running since 1989. It is located high up on the coast, just behind and to the side of the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral. The dining room is one floor up from the street, with several outside tables that boast a superb view of Santorini’s caldera and the ships below. Sunset here is a spectacular experience. The kitchen describes itself as “creative” and the menu is certainly unusual, mixing some Greek ingredients and dishes with assorted international influences. Dishes are complex, with more components that a menu should really contemplate, and some of them quite peculiar. Does tuna tartare really need white aubergine mousse, red wine vinegar syrup, cardamom and chillies? Even it does, was the further addition of Campari-Aperol jellies really a good plan? Do the extra flavours of bitter orange, rhubarb, gentian and cinchona bring a crucial missing balance that also required some extra seared tuna? This is just one dish, though it has enough elements for several and gives you a general idea of the menu. On this warm summer evening does it really seem sensible to offer beef ragu with papardelle, nutmeg mousse and hazelnuts along with Metaxa brandy? If it does, why would additional wild mushrooms really add much, let alone the further addition of “white truffle oil”. This oil, let’s be honest, doesn't really exist except in the fevered imaginations of food science marketing graduates that label the bottle that it comes in - it is actually a smelly chemical called 2-4 dipentene that could hardly be further away from a real truffle growing in the soil under an oak tree in Alba if it tried. Two dishes into reading the menu and my heart was already sinking. 

The wine list was a welcome distraction from the menu. This featured references such as Skouros Almyra Chardonnay of mysterious vintage at €42 for a bottle that can be found in the high street for €19, Hadzidakis Assyrtiko de Milos Vielles Vignes of similarly unknown vintage at €75 compared to its retail price of about €34 and Lo Sperone Brunello di Montalcino 2006 at a surreal €165 for a wine that will set you back €29 in a shop. There were some grander wines too, such as Eduardo Chadwick Sena 1996 at €280 for a bottle that retails at €150, and Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2008 at an excessive €360 compared to its current market value of €136. By comparison, I drank the 2012 vintage of this identical wine last week at a three star Michelin restaurant in Spain for just €165, less than half the price here.

Some nibbles appeared. Ravioli of salmon was coated in pineapple sauce, served alongside Santorini cherry tomatoes. The pasta had reasonable texture though the salmon flavour seemed to be quite muted, but to be honest it was hard to tell because the crashing pineapple sauce elbowed out any other flavour that may have been present. It was as if a delicate composition of water lilies on a tranquil lake was disturbed by a sumo wrestler unaccountably jumping into the water from a great height. I can hardly recall a more misjudged flavour combination than this (8/20). Bizarrely, next to the pineapple ravioli debacle was a pair of innocent bystanders in the form of a couple of incongruous Santorini cherry tomatoes. I have no idea what these were doing here with the pineapple ravioli, but there they were, minding their own business, perhaps lost on the way to a salad. Separately, green and red pepper bread slices were better than brown bread, which did not taste entirely fresh.

Cylinders of angel hair filo pastry contained a filling of chloro goat cheese from Santorini and mature Graviera sheep milk cheese, along with bergamot, prickly pair confit and saffron, accompanied by an organic herb sauce. The filo was delicate and the cheese filling was fine, the pear confit bringing some acidity, but the dish was let down by the herb sauce, which clashed with the main dish element (12/20). A green salad was never going to be that simple here. On the plate were salad leaves with warm fish and crab balls mixed with sesame seeds, along with avocado, pine nuts, quinoa, soy sauce, sesame oil and strawberry vinegar dressing. This sounded pretty suspect but worked well enough. The seafood balls were pleasant, reminiscent of gefilte fish; the avocado was ripe, the quinoa gave a textural contrast and the only slightly off note was the strawberry vinegar (12/20).  

Croaker was wrapped in nori seaweed and came with an emulsion of salt cod, olive oil caviar with lemon and thyme, sausage flakes and a pair of Brussels sprouts. The fish was nicely cooked, its quite meaty flavour coming through well enough, the sprouts properly cooked though seeming peculiarly out of place on this summer evening, the sausage flakes fortunately not distracting too much from the taste of the croaker. This was another peculiar amalgam of flavours, yet each component itself was competently prepared. The puzzle was why all these things were brought together (12/20). The best savoury course was a Greek salad, this naturally being a distant relative of what you might expect. This version had fennel, strips of courgette, cherry tomatoes, green peppers, black olives, cucumber, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and baked feta cheese in filo pastry with sesame seeds and paprika, along with a fairly classic dressing with olive oil. The tomatoes had good flavour, as did the capers. The olives were nice and although I think the courgettes could have safely been omitted, this was a perfectly pleasant salad (13/20).

Prawns were grilled and served with carpaccio of nectarines, coconut milk and yuzu sauce, roasted cashews and red curry mousse. The shellfish themselves were nicely cooked, and the gentle spice of the red curry mousse worked well enough with the prawns. The coconut milk fitted in quite well, the yuzu providing some freshness, the cashews bringing an extra texture. This combination of flavours seemed to me more logical than some of the others tonight, the overall effect being quite enjoyable (13/20). 

Desserts were as unappealing a bunch of dishes as I have seen for some time. I am not sure who really gets to the dessert stage of a meal and thinks: “what I really want now is some tiramisu with white aubergine and almond praline, along with some lemon thyme and citrus sauce and, oh, maybe some wild cherry ice cream”. Maybe someone, but not me. We ended up with a relatively sane dessert of chocolate mousse with blueberry ice cream (13/20), which was only produced after we had declined the trio of frankly insane offerings on the menu. A little glass of some sort of liquor came with coffee but I confess that I didn’t try it, as I was always taught to beware Greeks bearing gifts.

Service was friendly and professional and the bill came to €222 for two i.e. £97 per head with a nice bottle of Hatzidakis wine. If you opted for one of the cheapest bottles on the list then a typical cost per head might be nearer £80. The owner, though notionally the chef, spent the evening supervising the front of house tonight. This restaurant has been a fixture on the Santorini dining scene for decades, and doubtless once seemed original and different, but the menu now just seems to me to be wildly over complicated, with assorted clashing flavours and ill-judged combinations. This is frustrating since the actual cooking seems competent, with properly cooked fish and vegetables. However the menu is unappealing, at least to me, with dubious flourishes such as truffle oil and other frippery that immediately sends warning lights flashing in the mind of any fairly well travelled diner. The view is lovely and the staff were nice, but the bill is high and the experience hard to recommend.


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