Under the talented and creative hands of chef Aphrodite Balanou, the gods, if they could, would agree her dishes are ambrosial. Fortunately mere mortals can dine at Ambrosia, the open-air dining room at the Flegra Palace Hotel in the Halkidiki seaside resort town of Pefkohori, Greece. If chef Balanou’s fresh interpretations of classic Greek and Mediterranean dishes aren’t reason enough, dining poolside at the Flegra Palace must be just as elegant as Mount Olympus.
Ambrosia is the Flegra Palace Hotel’s a la carte dining venue serving both lunch and dinner. A covered open-walled seating area is slightly raised above the expansive, lushly landscaped and imaginatively lit pool. Guests can sit as well at open air tables under the olive and palm trees or at the Soliel Bar’s glass floored lounge cantilevered over a section of a pool fit for a palace.
Utilizing the finest meats, seafood and fish with many vegetables and herbs from the hotel’s organic garden, chef Balanou is as serious preparing healthy food as she is crafting imaginative dishes. Like so many restaurants in Greece, the fresh olives and oil are not only local but familial. The hotel’s own trees and the family farms of Flegra Palace CEO Yannis Laspres provide the kitchen’s needs. The bi-lingual menu at Ambrosia deftly explains the health properties of the main ingredients and the dishes’ calorie counts. Macedonia’s Halkidiki region is a summer playground for many foreign tourists, and chef Balanou remains true to the ingredients that make Greek cuisine prized among foodies.
A fresh salad with peppery rocket and arugula greens, roasted cherry tomatoes, Greek baby rusks, feta cheese and napped with a pomegranate molasses dressing started one mid-afternoon lunch. Classic grilled octopus was paired with sweet roasted fennel and a traditional Greek oil-lemon sauce. Not only full of favor and only 532 calories, the menu assures that “it is low in fat, rich in proteins, vitamin B-12 and calcium. Fennel has anti-aging properties.”
Dinner was a Greek taste sensation. A dish of Gavros Saganaki, sautéed fresh anchovies, lay in an herbed sauce bursting with the flavors of oregano, peppers and dijon mustard. Greek fishermen harvest some of world’s most delicately flavored anchovies. A favored comfort food was perfectly prepared and light in texture salt cod croquettes. Lined up next to creamy mashed potatoes, they accompanied a rich garlic sauce, Corfu Aliada – all the traditional flavors tweaked to a new level.
Ambrosia for the gods is chef Aphrodite Balanou’s wild mushroom risotto. As the dish arrives, the flavors waft up with the steam. It’s the comforting aroma of earth after a fresh summer rain. Five varieties of wild mushrooms blend with snails, a drizzle of truffle oil and textbook creamy arborio rice to create a dish that make real mortals feel privileged – and it’s only 505 calories.
It’s the chef’s light creative touch bringing traditional dishes to a new level of flavor that’s true talent. The skill is not altering the dish, but enhancing all the basic flavors with the freshest ingredients. Paired with small batter fried barbounia fish (red mullet) was a simple potato salad.
Chef Aphrodite Balanou’s potato salad
- 4 large potatoes, approximately 2 pounds/1kg
- 1 bunch of fresh scallions minced
- 1/2 bunch of fresh dill minced – do not substitute dried dill
- 1 green bell pepper diced
- 1 red bell pepper diced
- extra virgin olive oil
- juice of a large fresh lemon
- Add a little salt and a 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice to 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Peel and cube the potatoes and add to the boiling water. Reduce the heat and simmer the potatoes 10 – 15 minutes or until fork tender. Do not over cook.
- Prepare the vegetables and dill.
- Drain the potatoes when tender in a strainer and place in a bowl.
- While the potatoes are hot, add the prepared vegetables and dill. Drizzle with olive oil just to moisten. You do not want the salad swimming in oil. Add the remaining lemon juice and salt to taste. Gently combine all ingredients.
- Allow the salad to come to room temperature and either serve or cover and refrigerate.
If the wild mushroom risotto is a summer rain, chef Aphrodite Balanou’s potato salad is its spring equivalent. Bright fresh flavors come from the finest of ingredients and a chef’s sophisticated nose and palate. Perhaps they were the secret to the fabled food of the gods.
Ambrosia at the Flegra Palace Hotel is open for lunch from noon until 5:00 p.m. and dinner from 8:00 – 11:30 p.m. The Flegra Palace Hotel 2014 season runs from May 13 through mid-October.
Disclaimer: the author was a guest of the Flegra Palace Hotel and the Halkidiki Tourism Organization.