When my cousin told me, out of the blue, that he had found the best sushi I would ever taste, I did something many of you would consider to be…rude.

I laughed in his face.

After all, when I say the Greek islands, does Asian cuisine come to mind? No, it doesn’t! The kind of fish you’d find in the town of Heraklion is not the same style as that you’d find in Tokyo. Frankly I figured I wouldn’t taste anything but lamb, chicken, and gyros for several more weeks. I had planned to hit my favorite sushi restaurant the very day my plane would touch American soil again, where I would treat myself to salmon sashimi, a tuna tartar, maybe some tamago, and the like. I loved the Cretan palate, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t dream of the occasional volcano roll. So how could I expect the Greeks to enjoy the taste of raw fish, since every other restaurant I’d been to (though their fish was delicious), cooked theirs? I wasn’t under any impression that there was a market for sushi on Crete.

“Trust me. You’ve never had sushi like this.”

“I’ll believe it when I taste it,” I said.

My cousin didn’t seem to understand my skepticism. My siblings, who were just as Americanized as I, couldn’t understand how our cousin thought that he had found sushi on the island. My brother rolled his eyes and was ready to write off all my cousin’s protestations. My sister wanted to take the risk, but my brother and I figured this was due to a desperation for food that wasn’t lamb. Finally, our curiosity overcame our trepidation we had over trying whatever the Greeks thought sushi was, and we decided to call up our cousin and have ourselves a culinary escapade.

We drove about 45 minutes to the seaside town of Chersonissos (or Hersonissos, depending on who you ask), a place that, for me at least, reminded me a little of Hollywood beach in South Florida. For those that haven’t had the pleasure, picture a cozy but commercial seaside town, where the nightlife is more like a comfortable party than an all-out bacchanalia, where the restaurants all have gorgeous views of the sea, and people on motorcycles riding on paths that probably shouldn’t allow motorcycles, but do anyways. It’s a place that gives off a calm and pleasant atmosphere, one that satisfies anyone looking for a party while at the same time giving those who just want a nice dinner their space. Never had I seen the personification of a happy medium in a physical place. It was quite nice, and, as I was to learn, a greatly appropriate place for a sushi restaurant on a Greek island.

The restaurant is named Kymata Sushi, owned and run by a wonderful visionary named Christos, who was inspired while on business in Japan to bring the wonder of sushi to his home. His other profession, that of high-end jewelry store owner, has influenced his passion. The sushi he has helped to bring to this country is, quite simply, a work of art, as seen on the screens on the walls above the restaurant that show his beautiful jewelry morphing slowly into intricately rolled pieces of sushi. It was a little entrancing, and I couldn’t help but allow my mouth to water just a little.

“Wait until we order,” my brother said. “Just…wait.”

My brother takes his sushi very seriously. He can down four to five rolls of sushi (with some pieces of sashimi here and there) in the same time it takes a normal person to eat one roll with maybe an appetizer. It really is an impressive thing to witness, almost like a free Vegas magic show: watch this pound of tuna disappear before your eyes in 3…2…you get the point. His litmus test was a tad more precise than mine, and so we agreed to order a wide variety, to my cousin’s distress.

“Are you sure you’ll be able to eat all of that?” he asked, wondering just what we were feeding my brother in America, who was tall and thin and didn’t look as if he was physically capable of eating an entire kitchen. My brother’s face was stone. He wasn’t there to play games…he was there to eat sushi.

Our waiter took our order, and after some pleasant conversation with some of the staff and the owner, and some complimentary hors d’oeuvres, our sushi came. We think, in retrospect, that the waiters stuck around because they simply couldn’t believe my brother would be capable of eating, though a more realistic explanation is that they were the most attentive staff I’d seen in a while. I don’t think my water glass was emptied once that night.

But the sushi was a marvel. It was beautifully presented, as if Poseidon himself had wrapped up his treasures and presented them to us on a plate. Our eyes wide, we couldn’t help but drool at the colorful array before us, filling the table, and making us just a little unsure of how much, in our hubris, we had ordered. The taste test, however, was still before us. We gazed at my brother, who had assumed the position of authority, and waited with bated breath as he lifted the first piece of sushi to his lips. The air went out of the restaurant. You could have heard a fish bone drop.

Our cousin, as you probably guessed, was right: the sushi was the most delicious we had ever tasted. My brother’s eyes rolled back into his head, enraptured, and my sister, usually a proponent of sharing from other people’s plates, decided to start hoarding her own. I had to confess to my cousin that we ugly Americans were eating our hats. This was, in fact, the best sushi I’d ever had, and my brother concurred. He devoured 30 pieces of sushi, 12 pieces of sashimi, and an entire bowl of salmon tartar. He thanked our cousin for showing us the restaurant, and then walked off into the night, his thirst for sushi officially quenched. What a hero.

So if you are searching for a break in between the traditional Cretan fare, look no further than the small, lively town of Chersonissos. Look for a clean, well-lit place, known as Kymata, and enjoy some of the best sushi you’ll ever have in your life.

Say hello to Christos for me.

By Katarina Kapetanakis 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a tourist possessing many vacation days must be in want of an ice cream. Think about the last time you went absolutely anywhere on holiday: do you happen to remember a time when you didn’t see a massive line of hungry tourists waiting to get some ice cream? In many places, you can’t fault them for it. Ice cream is delicious, after all, and it’s a relief on a hot summer day. Its also familiar; you know ice cream is a safe bet, a delicious safe bet, when a sweet tooth hits you on your travels. So I won’t fault those tourists who spend their time in line waiting for ice cream when many of them simply don’t know that more interesting (and arguably better) alternative deserts exist.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to bougatsa.

The best sweet treat in all of Crete?

Bougatsa is a marvelous treat that is believed to come from the city of Serres, in Macedonia, and just so happens to be very popular in the Cretan cities of Chania and Heraklion. Bougatsa is a pastry made of thin, flaky layers of phyllo dough wrapped around either delicious mizithra cheese, or a sweet “cream” custard, both versions topped off with cinnamon sugar. It’s a warm and buttery wonder that hits all the right spots you didn’t even know existed. If you’ve never tasted it, you can’t imagine the warmth that spreads in you, that happy feeling that grows with every bite. The perfectly flaky, buttery phyllo is such a wonderful compliment to the slight tang of the cheese, while the cream version sits on the tongue like a dream,  the perfect balance of savory and sweet. When I was first introduced to bougatsa, it was like my third eye had opened. As a great lover of cheese, I had fallen head-over-heels in love. Truly, nobody does cheesy pastry like the Greeks. I honestly wonder if they were the first people to discover that cheese pairs so perfectly with pastry, and that it’s the perfect thing not only for an afternoon snack, but for those looking for a sweet and savory start to their day: that’s right, bougatsa is actually a breakfast food! Although nobody would blame you if you got it for lunch….and dinner…and dessert.

Isn’t she looooovely

My favorite place to get bougatsa is a small café called Phyllo Sophies, (which automatically wins extra points for that world class pun). Here you can find bougatsa at its most authentic, complete with an attentive staff and some pretty lovely surroundings, such as the fountain in the heart of Lion’s Square, and the universal joy that comes from people-watching. In fact, every so often talented street musicians will set up shop near the fountain, providing the perfect soundtrack to your afternoon cheesy (or creamy) treat. Stopping for a bougatsa in Lion’s Square is like stepping off the ride that is life for a short while. The world keeps spinning without you at a lightning pace, while you get to sit and enjoy a warm slice of comfort. That’s really what bougatsa is to me; a chance to collect yourself, to feel refreshed and be made whole again with just a touch of extra sweetness. It reminds me that life is short, taking stock of time, your surroundings, and your life is important, and most importantly, it reminds me that  sometimes the perfect way to make life a little better is to add a touch of sweetness. Perhaps that’s a little corny of me. But would you really begrudge me a little armchair phyllo sophy?

By Katarina Kapetanakis

It begins when you disembark. You step off the plane, or the ship, that you’ve been on for several hours now. Maybe you’re lucky, and you’re only two, maybe three hours away. Maybe you’ve caught a casual four-hour flight, and you’re looking forward to a nice three-to-four-day weekend away. Maybe you’ve just gotten off an agonizing seven or nine-hour flight and your legs are cramped, your eyes are dry, and despite (or perhaps because of) the airline’s attempt at bringing you a decent breakfast, you’re desperate to get off the plane and to find something that satisfies you. But, and odds are you’re in this predicament, you may be forced to wait for another few hours in an airport on the mainland, waiting for your connecting flight that will take you to what you hope will be an island paradise. Perhaps you grab a coffee, ignoring the rumbling in your stomach. Maybe you even cave and grab a pastry. You pray that something will be open by the time you land in Crete, because anything, anything¸ is better than dry, overcooked airport food.  Next to you, backpacking teenagers sit slumped in their seats, snoring slightly. You wonder if they’ll be seated next to you on the next flight. You hope they won’t be. Once you’re on the plane, the caramel you’re given by the flight attendant only seems to remind you of how absolutely starved you are.

The view from Meteora

But from the moment you step outside of the airport doors and set foot on the island of Crete, things start to look up.  A friendly face, a representative of the company you’ve booked with, has come to take you to your villa. They seem enthusiastic, despite the time, and their attentiveness warms you. Maybe you make small talk, about the flight, about the island, about the villa itself. But you can’t quite focus on it. You’re just wondering when it’s appropriate to ask: Where’s a good place to get some dinner? When you finally get up the nerve, (or maybe you’ve gotten lucky and your new friend on the island has broached the subject themselves), you’re happy to know that, in your case, your villa is right next to a wonderful taverna that your new friend knows very, very well.

The taverna is called Meteora, named after the mountain range on the mainland that holds some of the world’s most spectacular monasteries. The name is appropriate, as this restaurant is nestled on the side of a mountain, overlooking the sparkling lights of Heraklion down below you. You’re seated on the balcony, listening to the sounds of the ocean, of the music playing through the speakers, and if you’re not mistaken you can even catch the faint braying of a donkey. “From the church below. They have a donkey,” you’re told, and you smile at the image of a local priest riding to his church on his steed. The owner, Tasos, greets you warmly. He’s a great big bear of a man, tall and bearded, and simply exuding friendliness. He knows you’re staying in the villa next door, and he’s happy to welcome you. You’re overwhelmed by all the choices on the menu, he can tell. So, he brings you the best of everything.

Suddenly your table is covered in plates, a feast to end your day of fasting. Goat cheese paired with the sweetest of honeys. The Cretan version of bruschetta, a lovely compliment to your white wine that you sip like water. Dolmades, or stuffed grape leaves, are small but packed with flavor. “His mother, she makes them,” your friend tells you, and points to Tasos. It’s a family affair at Meteora, with his mother helping in the kitchen and his daughter helping him serve. You can’t quite understand all that’s being said, but you understand laughter, and smiles, and the toasts to your good health and good time. You cannot believe your luck when they finally present you with lamb, cooked to be so tender and flavorful you cannot believe you’ve ever eaten it any other way. It melts on your tongue. “Crete’s favorite vegetable,” Tasos jokes with you. They’re so flavorful, you’re told, because they spend all their days eating the wild mountain herbs. They flavor themselves, you think. It’s almost like they do Tasos’ job for him.

Crete’s favorite vegetable

Just when you think you can’t eat anymore, you’re presented with a plate of fresh fruit…and something else. Small, clear glass bottles full of a clear liquid. Water, you think, but no: it’s the drink of the gods. Raki, as you’re soon to learn, is a smooth but burning liquor to rival the alcohol content of American moonshine. But how delicious it is, and how warm you feel once you’ve had a couple sips of this ambrosia. And as you sit there, listening to music and happy chatter, that you’ve had quite possibly the warmest welcome as anyone could get.

There’s a comfort in finding your place in the warmth of a dish made with care, or dare I say love. For the people you meet, and I mean everyone on this island, they all put all the love that they have into all of the food that they make. And if your food is made with care, and if you’re met by the smiling face of people who love what they do and want to share the best of that with you, well then…what better way to say it?

Welcome to Crete.

By Katarina Kapetanakis