Trip to Corfu: Etrusco and Others

In late September, my gorgeous wife and I spent six days in Corfu, a beautiful, very green Greek island off the coast from Albania. There are many nice beaches, but Paleokastritsa is in a class on its own. As you might expect, various tavernas around popular beaches serve mediocre fare, and it is best to have a simple salad and keep your appetite for later. The old town in Corfu is a truly enchanting place, strolling its moonlight filled marble pavement at night is a timeless experience. Sipping a morning café at the Liston before heading to the beach is another delight. Watching the sun set at the rooftop bar of the Cavalieri Hotel while having a fine Negroni is another experience not to be missed.

Most importantly, Corfu has good restaurants and a very good one. I owe it to Constantine Stergides, a wine expert, for directing me to the right addresses. Of these restaurants, I will give a brief description of all, except Etrusco which deserves a review.

1.    Klimataria

This tavern is honest and perfectionist in simplicity. You can trust them for fried seafood, such as baby sepia and calamari. The octopus with tomato-onion sauce was stunning. The very fresh cockles and clams still tasted of the sea. Definitely try a wild fish in bianco (a lemon stew). We had rascasse. Wash it all down with a lean and mineral-laden wine, like a Gaia-Thalassitis (an Assyrtiko from Santorini). Klimataria may as well be the best real seafood restaurant in Corfu for its price-quality ratio.

2.    Pomo D'Oro

This restaurant is a good and modern restaurant in the old town. Terrace seating under a chestnut tree under the moon makes everything around you look beautiful. Some dishes were very well conceived and tasty: the roasted beef appetizer with tarama sauce; ravioli stuffed with feta mousse and tomato-pesto sauce (the frozen shrimps were unnecessary); a bouillabaisse ravioli with sepia and mussels. Grilled octopus and rigatoni with mizithra cheese did not leave an impression. The very nice young chef sent a souvlaki of swordfish and a grilled filet of beef with figs and duck liver as compliments. The swordfish was thick and properly cooked (rare), but lacked juiciness. The filet was fine, but the duck liver was way overcooked. Its pairing with a Muscat from Samoz island was well thought out. Apart from some red wine offered by glass, we had 2015 Gaia wild ferment. The oak is well integrated and the wine is round and has body. Its volcanic minerality has not been masked. Gaia Thallasitis is a better match with fried calamari and the like, but this one should pair better with grilled rock fish and fish with beurre blanc.


3.    Toula

Mr Stergides has written that this is a “fantastic seafood restaurant,” and he did not exaggerate. It is also located in a beautiful location and has an upper end clientele. An excellent artisanal salumi from Greece and fig paste was served as the amuse. The taramasalata was the best we have had anywhere. We shared a sea bass carpaccio and tuna tartar. The raw material quality cannot be faulted, but the overall balance of both dishes could have been better. The carpaccio was a bit too lemony, and the tomato-tuna ratio in the latter was tilted too much in favor of the latter. The wild greens stew, “tsigarelli” was perfect, as the greens tasted fresh and natural and the spicy tomato sauce complemented the dish well. For the main course we chose a 1.3 kg langouste. They transformed it into a memorable tomato-spiny lobster pasta, blending seafood taste into each strand of spaghetti. The langouste was juicy and sweet and not cottony, on par with the best Italian tradition. 2014 Kavalieros from Sigalas, an exquisite Assyrtiko with great structure, intensity and piercing minerality, buffered by citrus and agrume fruitiness, was an ideal companion with the langouste.

4.    Glyfa

This is another seafood restaurant that I recommend. Taramasalata is good, but not as memorable as Toula. We were pleased with both the marinated white anchovies and the octopus in vinegar. But the fish grilled on charcoal with herbs stole the show. It was an outstanding grouper fillet with a Greek salad as the side. 2015 Techni Malagousia from Drama reminded me of a Muscadet with its lean body, rocky-seashell-like minerality and citrus fruit in the background.

5.    Salto Wine Bar

This is a nice place in the old town operated by young and enthusiastic people. They have a real sommelier. The two best dishes we had were appetizers: zucchini flowers stuffed with calamari and parmesan with an avocado puree; homemade gravlax with black lentils and lime mayonnaise. Octopus with fava, striped sea bass in bianco, and pork fillet with caramelized figs in sweet wine sauce turned out to be merely adequate. Their olive oil from Pelopenesse is world class, and I purchased a bottle. I chose an intriguing wine that I knew well: 2015 Aidani from Hadzidakis. Aidani from Santorini is softer and less intense than Assyrtiko. It has a captivating floral nose, good balance, and understated citrusy fruitiness, with some mineral depth that becomes apparent in the finish.

6.    Etrusco

Ettore Botrini is an excellent chef with a clear vision. Before heading to his restaurant I had the wrong impression that his cuisine was dominated by the molecular philosophy. It is not, except one amuse with a green olive served in a spoon where he uses the spherification technique, and another amuse with squid ink caviar with the same technique. Otherwise his cooking respects the natural and local ingredients, and the tastes are clear. He achieves depth without sacrificing clarity.

Sitting on the terrace under the trees with space among the tables is lovely. Of the amuses, I did not care too much about the ersatz green olives or various flavored chips as snacks, but the hearth of lettuce filled with vegetable “snow” and herbs was light, crisp, and flavorful. The only available champagne by glass was Pierre Gimonnet and it was adequate.

The amuses were followed by four appetizers, where two of them were very good, and the other two were outstanding. The corn croquette with vanilla cromesquis infused the palette with complementary flavors which worked beautifully. The soft cooked egg with honey, xerex vinegar and squid ink caviar was on par with Passard’s famous entrée with maple syrup (Passard no longer offers it). The prawn cocktail with mayonnaise displayed the chef’s talent in elevating a hotel classic and uninspiring dish to culinary heights. I appreciated the quality of the prawn, the balance of flavors and the right use of fresh herbs and lettuce in this dish. It is often harder to concoct a dish which looks so simple, but is very well conceived and executed.

This said, the swordfish carpaccio was the true masterpiece. It was light and complex, with depth, and with a perfect calibration of flavors. The dish featured neratzi (bitter orange), wild salicornia, turmeric, tarama and jalepano ice. In lesser hands such a combination would have resulted in a fussy dish, and perhaps a mess. Here this dish turned out to be the perfect summer appetizer. We wanted to move on to the primi, but the kitchen sent us another masterpiece: a beetroot tartar with a fried anchovy in a spicy beet coulis and aioli. Again this dish had a perfect calibration of flavors. This dish looks well on the photo, but nowadays many dishes are created for photos on the internet, and they don’t necessarily scintillate the taste buds as this dish did.

For the primi we have had “triumph of the sea”, a dry seafood pasta with shrimps, mussels and clams. It was very nice and on par with what you will get in a good seafood restaurant in Italy.

For the secondi, both fish dishes made us happy. First, we had the the dentice cooked two ways: on the plancha with a salt crust and wrapped in vine leave with squid ink and steamed. Normally dentice can be dry; this one was juicy. The typical Mediterranean olive oil, lemon, garlic and rosemary sauce complemented it well. This was a take on a Corfu classic, the bianco which we have had at Klimataria.

The second fish was a bourdeto, a local spicy tomato and onion, garlic stew with rascasse. The meaty rascasse absorbed the sauce well, and the lemon foam in the dish freshened it. So did the tiny raw shrimps with salicornia.

The celery sorbet with granola, green chartreuse ice, and mint was an apt finish to the culinary marathon.

We tried the Robola grape from Cephalonia the first time in our life. It is from Gentilini. Unfortunately, the wild yeast cuvee was not available. The available standard cuvee was light, had a whiff of sea breeze on the nose, and nice salinity in the finish. It worked well with the appetizers, especially the prawn and swordfish carpaccio and with denti or dentice fish. 
Overall this restaurant can still shine in a sophisticated metropolitan city, although I doubt they can find the same ingredients. Chef Botrini’s reinterpretation of traditional cuisine is grounded in good taste rather than innovation for its own sake. We would love to go back.