I will never forget my first feature assignment for a few reasons. For one, it was absolutely the most stressful time of my life, but I also discovered the perfect fried potato amongst the best Greek food ever. This may not sound like anything special. If you’ve tried one fried potato, you’ve tried them all, right?
Wrong. If you go to Dounias, a restaurant in the mountains of Chania, Crete, you will have the good fortune to try a fried potato so delicious that it will ruin all other fried potatoes for the rest of your life.
I had pitched a story about cheese in Crete to my former editor at SAVEUR Magazine. I was a little fuzzy on the specific sources, but I did know that there was a disappearing cheesemaking tradition on Greece’s biggest island, and I also knew that the culture there is very different from that of the rest of the country. Cretans are fiercely independent; proud of being Cretan first and foremost, then Greek. Generally, the men on the island have large mustaches that are twirled at the end. Raki, or tsipouro, is the drink of choice all day, and you cannot say no to it. Most weddings involve a tradition of shooting guns into the sky. And the food here is the very best Greek food on offer.
It was my third day of reporting in the company of two friends who were also acting as my translator and photographer. They talked non-stop about the food, but so far, we had only tried a couple of touristy spots down by the water. It was good Greek food, don’t get me wrong, but I had yet to try the mind-blowing dishes they kept on promising.
I had also yet to find a cheesemaker. I wanted to find someone who was producing something special on the island, and Crete is full of shepherds. However, they are notoriously reclusive and often reluctant to talk to anyone, especially an American journalist.
Then I heard about Dounias, and how the owner served homemade cheeses from the milk of an extremely rare heritage cow breed (and possibly the only cows on the entire island). I wondered if Stelios Trilirakis and his establishment were the real deal — it seemed too good to be true.
We drove about 40 minutes out of the port town of Chania to get to the restaurant. The road took us up and down a winding road into snow-capped mountains that you can see from the ocean.
Stelios is one of the most energetic and passionate people I have met in the restaurant world. The magic of his food is in its simplicity and purity. The olive oil, the cheese, the herbs, and much more are all made or grown by Stelios and his family for the restaurant, and are so fragrant that you can taste them as you walk past the kitchen. There’s no electricity for kitchen appliances, so produce is picked fresh, and the food cooks long and slow over outdoor fires fed by long wooden branches for an entire day. The potatoes melt in your mouth like ice cream. The goat doesn’t require any cutting. It’s what healthy plants and animals are meant to taste like: a little like the earth, very complex, and full of flavor and juice.
My friends and I ordered a few plates, but Stelios kept them coming until we had tried one of each dish he made that day. When I remember this meal, I always go back to the potatoes. If you can make such a simple, universal dish taste so unbelievable, so incomparable to what it usually is, that’s when you know you’ve stumbled upon something incredible. I have eaten at a lot of fantastic places around the world, but I can honestly say that this modest Greek meal made without pretense or fancy tools is the best I’ve ever had, and probably ever will.
What’s the best Greek food you’ve ever had? What about the best meal? Let us know in the comments!