There is something about the atmosphere of simmering hostility one encounters upon boarding a RyanAir flight – a sort of assumed impending argument between passenger and airline – that truly is one of the great consumer experiences of the modern age. I pondered this as I boarded my flight home from Athens after a highly enjoyable and successful mini tour of Greece with my good friend Giorgos Xatzipavlou, during which the generosity and friendliness of my hosts was once again self-evident, in stark contrast to RyanAir’s legendary customer service.
I think it’s safe to say we didn’t eat as well as we have done on past visits – a tight schedule of four shows in four cities on four nights meant we never really stopped in one place long enough to truly stretch our culinary legs, but this was Greece so even a chicken burger in Heraklion at 1am was a very tasty affair.
In Thessaloniki, we stopped at The Makedonia Hotel for lunch – a relatively upmarket place I have stayed at before, but which this year’s tour budget would not stretch to. This was not a problem at all, as I rather enjoyed going on holiday to the 1970s. Nothing makes you feel younger than staying in a room with a radio that doesn’t work carved into the bedside table. The Makedonia on the other hand, is a rather more swish affair, having recently been bought and refurbished by a Russian of the suspiciously capacious pockets we have come to know and love from the post-communism honesty boom.
The hotel itself is on a lovely spot overlooking the bay and the Navona Restaurant occupies a prime spot adjacent to the wide boulevard that is the pride of Thessaloniki’s seafront. It is the perfect place to watch the beautiful (and some somewhat less beautiful) people walk by. It is mostly the beautiful people who walk into Navona, if they are able to secure a table from the immaculately dressed and smiling guardian stationed by the reservation book at the entrance, who despite her impeccable manners somehow still manages to radiate a little of that oligarch menace. Groups of deeply tanned mothers shepherd glossy children to their goblets of Aperol Spritz and men with expensive watches accessorised with bangles and beads a decade or three too young for them sit with girlfriends of a similar vintage. This might sound relatively awful, but the atmosphere was pleasant, the service faultless, and we were sat in the sunshine in excellent company to enjoy food I wasn’t paying for, so it would be churlish to complain.
And so to the food. Was it as good as Russian money could buy? Well, yes and no. My starter of tuna tartare looked absolutely stunning – a beautiful oblong of fish, tiny bell peppers, caper berries and the world’s tiniest onions, garnished with vanishingly thin slices of radish. I dived in expectantly, but unfortunately a dressing of mustard and dill oil came with such a drastic slap of citrus, it was more of a belly flop. It was not actively unpleasant, but when I order tuna, I want to taste the fish and not what it is swimming in.
This was especially strange as my companions, Giorgos and his friend Tellis shared a superb Panzanela salad which was not only one of the boldest Greek salads I’ve ever eaten, it was truly brought alive by dint of a stunning red-wine vinegar dressing. I wish the kitchen had used (a bit of) it on my tuna.
As Navono claims to be ‘a taste of Italy’ I thought I’d try on their pizza for main course. Perhaps it was a reflection of the sad news that not only is my country attempting to leave the EU, it can also no longer support Pizza Express, while Pizza Hut baffling continues to trade, but I thought the chances of a decent version should be pretty good when I could actually see the Mediterranean as I ate it. I was mostly right – apart from the fact I was sitting next to The Aegean – delicious, slightly burnt edges with just the right chewiness and a generous topping of pancetta and artichoke. The middle was a little soggy, but it all ends up in the same place and sprinkled with black pepper and a little chilli oil, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Tellis and Giorgos opted for slightly more grown up dishes and here was further proof that the kitchen knows what it’s doing a lot of the time. A chicken supreme with chanterelles, parsnips and ‘authentic’ gravy left the chef nowhere to hide, which was not a problem as he or she executed it perfectly. Mind you, I would be interested to know what ‘inauthentic’ gravy involved. Or perhaps I wouldn’t.
The best think we ate was Tellis’s pork dish – beautifully cooked medallions of pork wrapped in prosciutto and served with a delightfully balanced green-apple glaze. Just as you convinced yourself you’d tasted something rather nice, a proper hit of lemon thyme turned up on the tastebuds and lifted the whole dish beyond the good to the really quite special.
If I have not exactly raved about Navona, that feels a little unfair, as we had a really rather fabulous lunch, although that was down to the company and the surroundings as much as the cooking. You could certainly do worse than an alfresco meal overlooking the sea at one of Thessaloniki’s premier hotels, although I’m sure there are many more options to sniff out. Hopefully I will be in a position to do that the next time I manage a Greek minor tour (COME ON!) I must admit, if we come back to Navono I would love to continue avoiding to pay for it as I’m pretty sure further lining an oligarch’s pockets doesn’t come cheaply. Especially when the pound has truly crumbled and I’ve had to get a visa to work there as well as spend an extra couple of hours at the airport just because 17.4 million of my countrymen didn’t realise they’d been sold a pup.
I suppose the one advantage might be having to fly with RyanAir slightly less often. Someone should tell Vote Leave to start campaigning with that slogan. It would be a lot more honest than almost anything else they’ve come up with.