“In Greece, food is an excuse to meet friends,” explained Nikita Patiniotis during a tour the previous week of Athenian food markets. It can be added that it’s an excuse as well to make new friends. The Oval could not have been a more pleasant café to introduce this travel writer to the culinary side of Thessaloniki and its citizens.
As a guest of the Halkidiki Tourism Organization, the Thessaloniki Hotel Association and the Thessaloniki Tourism Organization, my hosts, Sofia Bournatzi and Anastasia Karachisarli, had chosen wisely. The Oval’s location spans geographic centuries in this northern Greek city with its nearly 2,500 years of history stratified like layers in the Earth. Situated directly across from the city’s iconic 15th century White Tower, built by the Ottoman Empire on Roman and Byzantine foundations, the café itself is in a grand gently curving early 20th century structure. Following a devastating fire in 1917 that destroyed much of the old waterfront, the lower city was rebuilt with elegant boulevards, squares and parks designed by renowned French architect Ernest Hebrard.
On this balmy summer day the Oval’s spacious terrace afforded beautiful shaded views of the White Tower, a once infamous prison that’s now the focal point of the city’s nearly completed miles long waterfront park, and the glinting blue sea of Thessaloniki’s vast harbor. Even with the afternoon commercial bustle of a busy city, buffering trees, flowering plant beds and Ernest Hebard’s wide streets muffled traffic noise allowing easy conversation among new friends.
The Oval’s menu is intelligently designed to please patrons that want a cheeseburger, roasted vegetables with goat cheese on a toasted baguette or a nice selection of traditional Greek café dishes. Many of the Greek foods come as small plates, which only add to the conviviality of sharing dishes along with conversation. White tarama was smooth with the salty fish eggs, bread and olive oil blended into a light creamy spread. Kipper salad combined smoke and sea and the chopped kippered herring topped with onion paired well with the tarama.
A dish of simple lightly smoked mackerel was drizzled with fragrant Greek olive oil. A little known fact is that Greeks consume more olive oil than any other nationality. Cod bites were light fritters of salt cod mixed with herbs and served with a sauce of garlic, olive oil and walnuts. A grilled fillet of sole was napped with a white wine sauce accompanied by potato salad flavored with fresh herbs and oil, no mayonnaise.
All was washed down with a glass of iced tsipouro, the ancient spirit distilled from leftover post-wine making grape mash. It’s believed that monks on Macedonia’s sacred Mount Athos created tsipouro as early as the 14th century. Dessert, from another old Greek recipe, was a light and simple fried pastry drizzled with honey and cinnamon. Of course no meal would be complete without a cup of strong, rich Greek coffee.
Located on the crossroads of both ancient and modern empires and at the intersection of the fabled spice route between Asia and Europe have had a profound effect on both the culture and cuisine of Thessaloniki. It has made the city a culinary destination. Eleni Konstantinou’s Oval is a slice of calm within Thessaloniki’s layers of history.
Oval, Filikis Eterias 1, Thessaloniki, Greece