I met Giorgos Hatziyannakis, Selene's proprietor, in the early '90s when we planned the first ever Oldways Mediterranean food conference with Greg Drescher and the late Dun Gifford. It was held in Chalkidiki, Greece's northern resort area, a place of bewildering beauty where verdant surroundings edge into the crystal waters. But our luxurious, obtrusively large hotel, which was practically in the middle of nowhere, was totally incongruous with the incredible local flora and fauna—fittingly, it has since turned to a casino. Hatziyannakis was an invaluable help to me as I struggled to bring the atmosphere and flavors of the various Greek regions into the concrete, impersonal hotel halls and verandas. Journalists and food writers from the U.S. and other parts of the world who came to taste authentic Greek food still remember Hatziyannakis's stand where he fried marides, tiny Aegean fish, and served tomatokeftedes—the traditional Santorini tomato fritters—and other meze from the Cycladic islands.
At a time when most upscale Athenian restaurants served bad imitations of French and Italian dishes, Selene dared to experiment in the vernacular with mashed yellow split peas—the Greek fava, a traditional Santorini product. Hatziyannakis insisted that the restaurant's menu showcase the tiny and densely flavored tomatoes of the island, the bulbous capers and their leaves, hard barley rusks, and sweet white eggplants—all ingredients indigenous to Santorini. He is a pioneer who inspired many younger restaurateurs, and helped promote not just the food but also the wines of Santorini, which are now among the most popular of Greece's vineyard exports. When, about 15 years ago, The New York Times included Selene in its list of the 10 most spectacular restaurants in the world, it was no small accomplishment if you consider that our country has practically no gourmet restaurant tradition.