The sun is setting over ice-rimmed Turnagain Arm, the inlet I see out my Anchorage window. The snow sparkles in the setting sun’s reflection.
My body is here, but my mind is in Greece. I’m wading the shallows of a Northern Aegean island, a plastic basin of sea urchins floating beside me. It’s mid-February and the sea urchins are in their prime. Their tongues of “roe” are plump and full; their flavor captures the sea’s pure essence.
Four master chefs recently discussed what they wanted for their last meal on earth. For mine, I want a pile of just-harvested sea urchins, followed by a bowl of Lefteris Lazarou’s Sea Urchin Risotto, and then a few more fresh urchins.
Lazarou is the genius chef behind Varoulko, one of the best seafood restaurants in Athens. He flawlessly cooks sea creatures and, when their flavors peak, sends them to his guests. One summer night we went to Varoulko and ate under the open sky in an Acropolis-view roof garden. This was our menu:
~~ Whole Wheat Toasts with Sea Urchin Roe
~~ Filo-Crusted Sardines with Silky Smooth Eggplant Sauce
~~ Grilled Calamari with Feta and Wine Sauce
~~ Angel Hair Pasta with Grouper Cheeks, Fresh Oregano, and Tomatoes
~~ Braided, Grilled Garfish Drizzled with Smoky Fava Sauce
~~ Filo Napoleon with Custard, Figs, and Rosemary & Yogurt Sorbet
Because Lazarou focuses on seafoods’ essential flavors, his dishes aren’t overly fussy. To accompany the superb food, Varoulko’s list includes many Greek wines that pair well with seafood.
Varoulko is extremely expensive and not a place for everyday eating. If I want reliably good, reasonably priced, high quality seafood in Athens, I head to fish tavernas; Logia tis Ploris and Trata o Stelios in Kaisariani are two of my favorites. Yet, for a special occasion, or just to be inspired by Lazarou’s skill, Varoulko is well worth a visit.
In 2006, Lazarou, working with Greek food writer Diane Kochilas, published his cookbook: Βαρούλκο Χρώματα, Αρώματα και Γέυσεις (Varoulko Colors, Smells and Tastes) (available only in Greek). This may be the most beautiful cookbook I’ve ever seen. It’s printed on high-quality paper that showcases Vassilis Stenos’ stunning food porn. Subtle background drawings of fish, akin to holographic watermarks, grace every page.
Lazarou’s recipes are straightforward and, like the food at Varoulko, emphasize flavor over showy technique. Best of all, his brilliant recipe for Sea Urchin Risotto, the one I want to eat as part of my last meal, is in the cookbook.
If you’re in Greece, head for the shore to gather sea urchins during the next few months. After eating your fill of raw urchins, including a few extra for me, gather enough to take home and make a batch of Lazarou’s Sea Urchin Risotto. )
Those who don’t live near wild urchins can make Sea Urchin Risotto with roe sold under the Japanese name “uni.” To find it where you live, locate a sushi bar that offers uni and ask for their source of supply. In Anchorage, Sagaya Wholesale on Whitney Road sells uni at very reasonable prices.