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Restaurants & Bars 19

Athens Market: An Appreciation (long, detailed)

Antonius | Mar 3, 200411:02 AM

In a previous posting which, among other things, responded to another writer’s praise of D’Amato’s, I mentioned that that venerable bakery and the Taylor Street salumeria ‘Conte di Savoia’ had been especially important culinary resources for me when I first moved to Chicago in 1989. There was, however, a third such business which I didn’t mention in that posting (since the discussion was specifically on things Italian). That third place was the Athens Market, on Halsted just north of Van Buren, thus the southernmost block of the centre of Greek Town.

The Athens Market (AM) serves several different rôles, namely, lottery sales office, pint-bottle liquor shop, small grocery and Greek specialty shop; in this last rôle the Athens Market is a wonderful and, for me, indispensable culinary resource. In part, its particular value to me has had to do with geography, being a convenient source for various beloved items both when I lived in Hyde Park and even more so now that I live in the Loop, but I would make a special trip there even if I lived much further away. These are the main points which draw me there:

1) Olives: There is a very nice selection of olives, at least 7 or 8, I would guess. Since they seem to do a brisk business in the specialty items, their olives are reliably fresh and delicious (over the many years I’ve been going to this shop I’ve had at most only a couple of disappointing experiences with Alfonsins or Royals, which presumably don’t move as quickly as the Kalamatas). The Kalamatas are pretty much always as good as they can be –– large, plump and juicy –– and the batch I bought yesterday sent me into ecstasy.

2) Cheeses: As with the olives, there is a wide selection of items and the quality is first rate. They have Greek, Bulgarian and domestic feta in bins to be cut to order, and also big wheels of the common trio of Greek hard cheeses: Kaseri, Kefalotyri, Groviera. They also have other brands/versions of these three, displayed on the upper shelf of the cheese cooler. Also available are myzithra (hard sheeps-milk cheese for grating), manouri (a dense, creamy yet crumbly sheeps-milk cheese that I heartily recommend to any cheese lover who hasn’t yet had it), and the Cypriot specialty, haloumi (at AM they sell ‘Pittas’ brand , which is quite good –– a better but much more expensive haloumi is available at Whole Foods).

3) ‘Deli’ Counter, Varia: Also at the deli counter they have salted anchovies and oil-packed tuna which you can buy in whatever quantity you wish. A further item I mentioned in a previous posting are the ‘volvi’, a kind of hyacinth bulb eaten in Greece and southern Italy (in Italian ‘lampascioni’ but also sometimes called ‘cipolline’ but then qualified as the bitter ones). Volvi are available from a large vat at the deli counter or now in smaller bottles as well. Containers of Greek yoghurt (a couple of brands), jarred taramo and a couple of kinds of preserved meats (including pastourma) are on sale there as well.

4) Olive Oil: A wide selection of Greek olive oils are always on hand. I’m especially fond of the ones from Crete (the highest grade Sitia is my personal favourite) but it’s nice to be able to buy and try so many different ones (more than one from each major region).

5) Greek pasta: They have a wide range of shapes by Misko, also some from Melissa, and a number of other brands of pasta (e.g. Divella, La Molisana) and, of course, sweet and sour trahanes in a couple of different brands and hylopites in various brands and sizes.

6) Paximadia: This are the hard biscuits which need to be resuscitated one way or another. AM carries at least two brands which in turn come in various sorts according to the grains used. My personal favourites are the barley paximadia from Crete but they’re all swell (when swollen).

7) Other Grocery Items: Lots of herbs and spices, honey from Attika, dry giant beans, Greek coffee (as well as brikis), pomegranate syrup, tahini, canned prepared foods from Greece (I’m not too enamoured of most of these but some are good for a quick fix)... etc. etc.

8) Vegetables: Sometimes some of the vegetables look a little tired BUT for a long time this was the only place I knew in Chicago where I could always get dandelions (and they’re usually beautiful); they also always have endive (curly green), flat-leaf parsley, dill, garlic, lemons, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, potatoes, celery and a few other vegetables and fruits. This section of the store is a welcome convenience, not a destination in itself.

9) Flesh: They have a cooler populated by little lamb carcasses which they will chop up for you. For no particular reason, I just haven’t bought any lamb there of late but I used to do so with great regularity and it was always first rate. The lambs are really lambs (I remember one time when I asked for lamb chops and they had to apologise for not having any that day –– their supplier had turned up with lambs that were too big and they refused to take them). They also sell roast lamb on Sunday mornings.

10) Greek Wines and Spirits: Lots of swell things to wash down your Greek meals. The offerings of Greek wines are extensive and, while I’m sure these items are all available elsewhere, the prices aren’t too bad and the convenience of one-stop shopping is nice.

All in all, AM is a great shop and eminently worthy of Chowhoundish support. Given that their limited bread offerings are now easily supplemented by means of a quick visit to Artopolis up the block (currently selling ‘lagana’, the flat-bread with sesame), this is a wonderful place to go to get quickly all you need for an excellent Greek meal. The people who run this shop are from Tripolis in Arkadia, just a little north of Sparta in Lakonia (southeastern Peloponnisos); they’re really quite friendly but a little taciturn, not surprising perhaps given their patria borders the land of the Laconians.

Kalí sas órexi!

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