"I want to marry the modern with tradition," says Harris Boukas the young owner of Elia. Like many restaurants in the Greek islands, Elia is housed in a centuries old building yet both the decor and menu cross time, blending grandmother's recipes with 21st century trends. The cocktail revival is part of this marriage as imaginative blends of local wild herbs and traditional distilled spirits add zing to long evenings relaxing among antiquity.
Ios is a classic island in the Cycladic archipelago meaning that it's the top of a mostly submerged mountain in this volcanic region of the Aegean. From the ferry terminal at the small picturesque port of Yialos, it's a short mile and a half taxi ride up the mountain to Chora or a photogenic three quarter mile stroll up the restored ancient Donkey Steps. Chora, the capital of Ios, is a quintessential Greek island pile of white washed buildings climbing further up the mountain crowned with three photo perfect chapels. The scene could not be more classic if designed by a sculptor.
Like so many island towns, reality has more to do with medieval security and geography than modern tourism photo ops. The narrow streets in Chora are pedestrian only simply because their pre-20th century construction makes car traffic impossible. The juxtaposition of locally owned shops, residential housing, trendy boutiques, small hotels and dozens of cafes make lingering in Chora sheer pleasure.
Although Ios is blessed with many secluded beaches it has a reputation for being a party island. The center of the activity that attracts many young Greek and Europeans is Mylopotas Beach several miles from Chora. Nightlife in Chora – post midnight – can certainly become lively during the summer season, but dining in the following seven tavernas and cafes is both relaxing and a gastronomic delight.
Disclaimer: the author was a guest of the Municipality of Ios
Located directly across from the ferry terminal, Afrodite's will introduce a first time visitor to the traditions of a Greek taverna. The open kitchen is at the entrance with nearly everything on the menu displayed on steam tables. You can simply point and choose one item or select a buffet of dishes. Butter tender squid is a delectable pairing with tomato sauced pasta. Rice stuffed green peppers with garlic roasted potatoes and a large Greek salad with three slabs of fresh feta cheese is a savory vegetarian choice. Thick slices of crusty bread are always present to soak up the sauces that disperse the many herbs present in Ios cuisine. Located directly on the waterfront in the small port town of Yialos, the view from the rustic tables will have you feeling like a local by the end of the meal.
"We're romantic," says Chef George Katseas and that's evident by both the decor and the manner in which George and partner Theodora Tziamali treat their customers like family. Tucked away in a 150-year-old house on a winding Chora street, Katogi Restaurant even uses the courtyard as a dining room covering the space with arbors of grape vines decorated with a variety of pierced tin lights. Fun, eclectic decorating dominates the rooms like a Greek flea market. A mix of Greek jazz and pop plays softly in the background. The emphasis at Katogi is to create a dinner of small plates, mezze, out of a menu highlighting the new cuisine of grandmother's recipes meeting the 21st century. Cheese tortillas cones are filled with shredded beef, Gruyere cheese and tomatoes. The Greek buffalo loaf is rich and dense with no garnish other than fresh lemon. Water buffalo are raised in the vast wetlands of Lake Kerkini in northern Greece. A cocktail, the Picnic, is a blend of gin, jasmine syrup with a touch of lemon and orange bitters and served in a vintage aluminum thermos. Yet dessert is as traditional as they come. Spoon sweets arrive on a silver tray: fig, tomato and citron served on crystal plates with silver spoons. The meal made me smile.
Chef/owner Stelios Nicolaou's Enigma has been a fixture on the Yialos waterfront since 1987. Specializing in traditional Ios cuisine, the aroma from the clay pot baked goat, potatoes and wild thyme, slow cooked for 2 1/2 hours in a wood fired oven, conjures images of lunch in a farmhouse. Spicy "burning cheese" – Tyrocaphtere – black olive paste, fava bean puree with sautéed onion garnish
and crusty bread pair well with both the goat and the image. For vegetarians there's baked zucchini stuffed with cheese and dill, clay pot baked garlicky mushrooms and fresh green beans and potatoes stewed in a tomato sauce. For dessert halva served with homemade orange marmalade and candied orange slices is the perfect sweet and savory finish to enjoy with strong Greek coffee.
"Slow food, slow cooking, slow eating and slow drinking" is the philosophy of Ios native chef/owner Vasilis (Billy) Tsitiliznis and his manager/ mixologist wife California born Molly Reid. Lord Byron is located in a historic Chora house decorated with a riot of Haitian art, capiz shell lights, Indonesian woodcarvings, antique mirrors, simple wood tables with instrumental jazz playing softly in the background. Like their good friends at Katogi, the menu exemplifies the blend of tradition tweaked to modern tastes. Avocado stuffed with taramosalata was a creamy combination paired with a green salad garnished with pomegranate seeds. A "carpaccio" of beetroot, candied sesame, locally produced xino cheese with arugula pesto highlighted sweet, savory, sour and salty. Sardines baked between tomato slices with mocrathos (a herb that looks like dill with an anise taste) were paired with Macedonian salad – shredded red cabbage, celery and carrots. And moist, wood grilled burgers of kid (young goat) with a slightly spicy tomato sauce was flavored with the island's wild oregano. The islands are famous for their infused raki drinks and Billy's grandmother's recipe using fresh chamomile and honey, exposed to the sun for three months and then filtered, was a perfect digestive.
Owners Andonis and Linda Zacheos have created a little Greek/Irish enclave of business. Escape is located on the main road just entering Chora and next to the famous Donkey steps that lead all the way from the main village of Chora to the port of Yialos. Linda is Irish and Andonis is an islander. Family members own bars and cafes including the popular Sweet Irish Dream nightclub as well as apartments-to-let on property they bought over a decade ago. With an eclectic menu blending traditional Greek, western European and Asian selections – and a penchant for Philadelphia Cream Cheese® – Escape has a year-round following among locals, tourists and expats. A classic Caesar salad was aromatic with the addition of local smoked bacon. An Indian style chicken with pasta, curry and roasted potatoes had a pleasant savory aroma. A slab of crusty bread was stuffed with spinach, bacon and Philadelphia Cream Cheese®. But Γλυκοπικάντικη Λιχουδιά (sweet delicacy) is a traditional feta cheese stuffed sesame seed crusted phyllo pastry drizzled with the incomparable thyme scented honey of Ios.
The small 19-seat location in Chora with room for 5 at the bar and about 10 outside on the sidewalk is the essence of an intimate dining experience. Everything in Chora is old but Elia has decor as young and modern as its 26-year-old owner Harris Boukas. Artistic photographs of the olive oil making process (Elia means olive) line the walls, and suspended over the bar is the trunk of a thousand-year-old olive tree wired with retro light bulbs. Opened for only two years, Harris greets repeat customers by name including returning tourists. Harris studied privately with renowned Athenian chef Vagelis Driskas but is not Elia's chef – he has a university degree in engineering. He is the mixologist with a modern penchant for imaginative combinations such as blending rocket (arugula) ginger and vodka. Yet the menu is very much his own. A salad of greens with orange segments, green olives, avocado, pomegranates and walnuts was napped with a dressing blend of orange juice, basil, olive oil, mustard, Malaysian pink salt and green pepper corns. The cheese filled phyllo straws are his grandmother's recipe and a savory pairing with the sweet notes of the salad. Ground turkey burgers are seasoned with Ios wild herbs topped with a sweet yellow onion sauce. The pop music playing in the background is louder than the average Chora restaurant, but just right for Elia's young old city clientele.
Not a restaurant but a food shop, Mosenta is appropriately housed in one of Ios' oldest commercial buildings dating from 1891 and original to the construction of the island's port of Yialos. Maria Kontonikoli, owner and chef, opened Mosenta in 2013 with her husband to promote local Ios food products. Much of the fruit and produce used in their prepared foods is grown on their own organic farm, and they personally gather most of the wild herbs. Ios hillsides are covered with wild herbs especially thyme, oregano, rosemary and sage. Cheeses come from the municipal factory whose cheese maker is the brother of Escape's Andonis – Xino, Metsovone and Myzyrtha are some examples. The products are made on site in the shop's kitchen including preserved and dried fruits, caper berries and leaves, dried herb salt blends and jars of all-natural herbal face creams. Among traditional sweets are buttery almond cookies and delectable cheese lemon honey tarts. Row upon row of glistening jars of spoon sweets line the shelves – fig, cherry, walnuts to name just a few. In the orange spoon sweet entire slices are used which can't be done with other citrus fruits. They make their own infused liquors such as "Holy Water" – raki and honey infused with seven herbs. If you can only take one food product back home, buy the island's incomparable wild thyme honey. Thyme survives during the hot summer months, which is why the island's bees favor the herb. Mosenta sells local crafts as well – beeswax candles, woven rugs and pottery.