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Varoulko

Akti Koumoundourou 52, Pireas, Athens, 104 35, Greece

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Varoulko is in Piraeus, the port of Athens, which is about six miles from the centre of the city. It is situated directly on the harbour, its picture windows looking out over the many boats moored there. The restaurant premises is actually split, with a bar area and the toilets being across the road from the dining room. Piraeus is a lively area, and Varoulko is in a block of other restaurants and bars. On the night that we went the street was closed off to traffic for an open-air concert, with crowds of people in the neighbouring establishments.

Varoulko has a Michelin star, offering an almost exclusively seafood menu, There appear to be many choices, but although there are plenty of starters, the main course is essentially just grilled fish of the day with a variety of garnishes, some of which were unavailable. The menu suggested dentex, sea bream or grouper as the likely catch of the day, but none of these were available, the only fish today being amberjack.

The wine list had a reasonable selection of Greek and international wines, though the restaurant had not bothered to translate the Greek wine names, and there were no vintages shown at all; the list was also riddled with typos. Example wines were Montes Classic Series Sauvignon Blanc at €28 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for €10, Ostertag Heissenberg Riesling at €68 compared to its retail price of about €29, and Massolino Barolo at €85 for a wine that will set you back maybe €48 in a shop, but it all depends on the year. At the time of writing, the WineSearcher database shows this wine at anything from €36 to €124 across the vintages, so who knows whether €85 is a good or bad price? There were wines up to €395 in the list, but who in their right mind is going to order a wine for hundreds of euros with no idea of the vintage? A restaurant that omits vintages is doing so because they are too lazy to reprint the list when the years change, or regard their customers as ignorant bozos who are too ill-informed to care. We drank non-vintage champagne. 

There were no nibbles, and bread was charged extra at €1.50. It was the kind of grim, dried out, hard bread that you find at mid-priced hotel catering functions in the home counties. The starters did not inspire confidence either. Crab came with apple, lemon, a sprig of coriander and a tangerine sauce. The colour of the crabmeat was a troubling shade of grey, though it tasted decent, but the tangerine sauce was much too sharp. For reasons that elude me, the bowl in which it was served rested in a further glass containing water and some greenery, though as there was no link between the dishes, and the bowl was cold, there was no connection between the two bowls, other than as decoration (12/20 is kind). I had tuna tataki with shiso (perilla) and black sesame wrapped in pastry leaves, served with a salad and a tomato, pepper and soy sauce. The tuna was pleasant enough, cooked quite lightly, though the sauce was bland and the salad leaves were tired and soggy (12/20 for the tuna but the salad was a disgrace).

Things perked up with the arrival of the main courses. I had red mullet (the solitary fish available other than amberjack) served on a bed of vegetable "spaghetti", saffron and dill oil. The mullet was actually quite good, accurately cooked and having nice flavour. The strips of assorted vegetables were nothing special, but did taste of dill and saffron (14/20). The amberjack itself was very good, having excellent flavour (it resembles swordfish but has a more refined taste) and being properly cooked. This was served with a surprisingly good risotto of fennel with shiitake mushrooms (comfortably 15/20). 

One of the four desserts was unavailable, but the two we tried worked out well. An "apple" actually had a coloured chocolate coating with white chocolate mousse filling, but came with diced apple on the side, as well as green apple sorbet and apple jelly on a bed of crumble. This was a quite sophisticated dish involving a lot of work, the "apple" being a quite good replica of the real thing, and the real apple elements providing enough acidity to balance the white chocolate, the crumble adding its own texture (15/20). Chocolate came with Greek coffee cream, a hazelnut garnish and mixed spice ice cream. The chocolate slab itself used Valrhona gianduja, which has quite a strong hazelnut flavour, and had good texture. The ice cream tasted of cinnamon and nutmeg, and the coffee cream was a logical foil for the chocolate (15/20). Espresso coffee itself was pretty basic and served lukewarm, and came with no petit fours, and even at €3 would be a highly profitable affair.

Service was, not to put too fine a point on it, atrocious. At the start of the evening we were seated and then waited to see a menu or a drinks list, and waited some more. A pack of waiters lurked around the entrance chatting to each other and ignoring the room, which at that point had just a handful of tables occupied. When the food arrived it was a case of "who ordered what?", which even most simple high street chains successfully manage to avoid asking. There was a sommelier who delivered the wine and then retreated to the far side of the room to carry out whatever pressing business was occupying him, which appeared to consist of staring blankly into space and certainly not checking on whether any glasses needed topping up. After a while I gave up and leaned across to refill my own wine, which was just about within reach across the aisle. I really don't care whether a restaurant just leaves a bottle on the table for the customer to pour, but if they are to serve it and then place it away from the table, as here, then they need to be capable of refilling the customers' glasses. Only once in the evening did the staff manage to actually refill our wine glasses. The service shambled along like this all evening. When we finished our desserts the dirty plates just sat on the table, and eventually I managed to flag down a passing waiter to order coffee. Still the plates stayed on the table, even after the coffee was served, and it was only when I tried to order the bill and pointed them out that a waitress sheepishly removed the dirty plates. Otherwise they would probably still be there to this day, a monument to some of the most pitiful excuse for a service operation that I can recall anywhere (and I have had the misfortune to have eaten in restaurants in Harlow, so I have a pretty low bar in this regard). The bill came to €113 (£99), with no pre-dinner drinks and a bottle of champagne to share.

This was a bizarre meal. The main courses and desserts were just about in Michelin star territory. but the starters were poor and the bread a joke, the wine list amateurish. Service was, as noted, comically awful. This was quite annoying given the far from low prices. The location here is lovely, and if there was greater consistency in the kitchen and they fired the entire service team then there is the potential for a good restaurant here, but this possibility was a distant dream tonight.

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