In a nutshell
Location: Minoos 5, Ag. Nikolaos 721 00, Greece
Price: Starters from €8, Mains from €12
Opening hours: Monday-Sunday 13:00 – 23:00
Book a table: 0030 2841023173
Status: Highly recommended
Piato is the kind of restaurant no one will tell you about, which makes sense because when you’re a tourist, people tend to send you to more touristic places. Piato is not one of those.
The family who owns Piato has been in the restaurant business since 1980. With the new generation taking over in 2006, it meant that the menu had to be modernized. They endeavoured to offer “homemade creative cuisine with a Cretan twist” — which is exactly what they are doing.
Our first visit to Piato had a lot to do with luck. We were taking a stroll in Agios Nikolaos and the lights inside the restaurant caught our eye. It looked nice from outside, with its beautiful decor, an efficient mixture of minimalism and tradition (not to mention the fantastic spirits bar) laid out by the sea in a 20-seats dining room with bay windows designed to let the gentle breeze of the evening in.
As we obviously hadn’t made a reservation beforehand, the manager took us to the bar and offered to make cocktails for us while we waited, apologising profusely that we had to wait. It was refreshing because it was very much our mistake and we didn’t mind waiting, especially since it took them a grand total of six minutes to get our table ready.
We didn’t know what to choose from the menu, as everything looked worthy of at least being tasted, our waiter suggested that we should try the Cretan cheese platter (in Crete, it is not unusual to start a meal with the cheese platter instead of finishing it). He also brought us dolmades (traditional stuffed vine leaves and courgette blossoms) that we hadn’t ordered — because a good waiter brings you what you ask for; a great waiter brings you what you don’t know you need.
The thing with dolmades is that when done right, they can actually be masterpieces. There is beauty to be found in very simple dishes that are pushed to excellence. Dolmades are basically nothing more than rice and fresh herbs (sometimes with minced meat) wrapped in leaves; they’re not much, when you think of it. But as any other traditional food, they have had centuries to be refined, and those served at Piato are the end product of this tradition of fresh, local, perfectly balanced Cretan dishes. I’ll write an ode to those dolmades, some day.
For the main course, I chose the grilled lamb chops served with thick-sliced fried potatoes and Cretan yoghurt. Again, something very simple that can really be fantastic, and it was. The meat was tender and aromatic, and of course, grilled to perfection. But the real surprise came on the second time we visited Piato (because when you find a restaurant of that quality in that price range, you eat there as many times as you possibly can) with their steamed mussels.
A parenthesis on mussels
I love mussels. The only thing is that I really dislike Zealand mussels, which is a bit of a shame when, like me, you’re from a country where it has the status of national dish. But Zealand mussels are chewy and, more often than not, full of sand. Eating them is a bit like munching on sandpaper-encrusted rubber. It is an experience I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy (if I had one).
The good stuff, the mussels you really want to eat, are smaller, tastier mytilidae grown on pilings located in tidal zones like the Bouchot mussels you find in France, or the rope mussels from the Shetlands, that range at about 60 pieces a kilo. Because in both cases they are rope grown (that is, not dredged from the bottom of the sea), they are completely grit free, on top of being generally better than their bigger cousins.
Greek mussels are grown either on pilings or on long lines exclusively, with at least 80% of the national production being grown in the western Thermaic Gulf. The Greek focus on just one species: the Mytilus galloprovincialis (in English, the Mediterranean mussel), whose shell is dark grey rather than black like the North Sea mussels, and whose flesh is very tender. So if you’re in Greece, by all means have the mussels, because you’ll be in for a beautiful experience.
Piato serves its mussels steamed with white wine, cherry tomatoes and fresh aromatic herbs. Again, simple and delicious, because dishes like these do not require complicated preparations if they are made with the finest ingredients and by a chef who knows what they are doing in terms of cooking time and balance. I don’t know who the chef of Piato is, but s/he certainly has mastered all that.
The dinner received its traditional Cretan conclusion, with a rich dessert (I personally cannot get enough of their walnut cake) and a glass of Greek Raki (the product of the distillation of grapes, not to be confused with Turkish Raki, which is an aniseed-flavoured sweet liquor). The bill ended up being a good surprise, especially given the fact that we hadn’t picked our wine from the cheapest tier of the list.
A special mention has to be made of the staff, whose professionalism and attention to detail contribute to making Piato a truly special place.
All in all, if you are looking for the one place that is gently yet resolutely remodeling traditional Cretan cuisine through a modern approach with a twist, then Piato is definitely where you should eat. Their cuisine is creative, tasty, and memorable. I, for one, love it.
Psst! While you’re here…
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All texts and pictures © Justine Houyaux, except the heading picture, courtesy of Piato.