Ari Vezené’s business card says a great deal about this restaurateur who was born in New York and arrived in his first professional kitchen via Burger King while a student in Chicago. His eponymous restaurant ought to be at the top of the list for anyone planning to visit Athens.
Under the restaurant’s name on the card is ‘Greek Inspired Bistro’, and then under his name is his role, described as ‘Chef/Butcher’. On the opposite side of the card is a chicken’s wishbone, the symbol of good luck.
Vezené has over the past decade certainly made his own good luck since his return to the land of his forefathers. In 2005 he arrived to work in the celebrated Milos restaurant in the Hilton hotel. By 2009 he had saved enough to fund his own Italian restaurant on the island of Meganisi and two years later he opened Vezené.
He has no intention of standing still. On the night we ate in his restaurant, Vezené was flying back from London, where he had been meeting the interior designers for the next restaurant that will bear his name and will open on the island of Mykonos in June. The following day he was due to fly out to Beirut to meet the lighting designers for the project. He would not accept my compliments on our meal the previous night, almost rebuffing me by saying, ‘It’s important that this is so. It’s poor management skills if I cannot convey our vision of what I want my restaurant to represent.’
When I pressed him and asked him just what his restaurant stands for, and in particular what his large-format menu signalled, his response was even more basic. ‘It’s as though you were coming to my house’, he explains, ‘and my wife and I were entertaining you.’
That would be fine but for one significant distinction. If we were invited to Vezené’s home, we would expect a sign, some notification that we had arrived. There is, however, after almost five years still no sign outside his restaurant. ‘If you can find it, you’re there’, Vezené added, somewhat mischievously (although the number of customers standing outside smoking was something of a clue).
Having said this, I must add that the restaurant does have a prominent address on Madrid Park close to the Hilton, and is very busy for dinner. We were fortunate enough to be there on one of the four Sunday nights in the year the restaurant is open.
The fun begins as soon as one walks in. There is an open kitchen along the far wall with a Josper oven centre stage and above, stored correctly and horizontally, is a large collection of wine bottles in what I assume is a temperature-controlled glass box. The acoustics – and our table of six was right in the middle of the restaurant – were considerably better than I would have imagined from a room devoid of soft furnishings.
The large-format menu is divided into three. Down the left-hand side are dishes to share; top right is a series of dishes to feast on; while bottom right are four desserts, followed by a fifth, simply headed ‘Ari’s Deal Closer’, a tribute to this clever restaurateur’s understanding of his local customers and their collective sweet teeth.
We began with three familiar-looking dishes. The first looked like a beef tartare but turned out to be goat tartare (top right), served with some excellent yoghurt and confit tomato. Then came an entire Cretan tomato, its inside stuffed with capers sitting on a mixture of vasilotyri, a spicy cheese from Epirus, and stamnaggathi pickles. This was followed by miniature dry-aged wagyu burgers (we were with some enthusiastic orderers).
Then came two pasta dishes to share, each of which underlined a principle that Vezerné was to explain to me subsequently: that sophistication for a restaurateur today lies in the ingredients he selects for his menus. This was revealed first of all in dish of sour trahanas, an ancient dish combining cracked wheat and fermented milk cooked with water, on top of which came shreds of lamb from Meganisi cooked in lamb stock. Better still were hand-made fettuccine laced with sea urchin from Chios mixed with Sarawak pepper.
Finally, to our two main courses to be shared: a steamed scorpion fish, served in the pan in which it had been cooked so that all the juices still surrounded it, and a côte de boeuf. This latter was picked over as much for the sensational Naxos potatoes that had been cut lengthways and roasted alongside as for the meat.
This somehow still left room for dessert and the six of us round the table succumbed to Ari’s Deal Closer. What arrived was a rectangular block about a foot high that contained a mixture of Madagascar vanilla ice cream, Brazil nuts, bitter chocolate fudge and butterscotch, the whole edifice topped with chocolate and accompanied by a large carving knife. Priced at 35 euros, this is a highly self-indulgent way of ending any meal but one that certainly justifies a booking for a minimum of four.
Vezené has cleverly designed a restaurant whose menu defines precisely what so many of today’s customers are looking for: food that could have been cooked at home but is instead served in friendly surroundings.
Vezené 11 Vrasida Street, Athens 11528, Greece; tel +30 210 7232002