Heritage and tradition rule Greece. That’s why the large nightclubs play Greek music, the best restaurants serve local cuisine, and all pastry shops produce baklava, but only some make cupcakes. Change is slow. While Dominique Ansel was stepping over a queue of sleeping customers all waiting for his cronuts in New York in 2013, the Athenians were still excited about frozen yogurt. That’s regular frozen yogurt – new to the Greeks, and made with Greek yogurt so it would feel like home.
For something new to work in Greece, a distinctly ancestral touch is often needed. That special touch was found three years ago by chef and food blogger Dimitris Koparanis when he combined bougatsa cream with a croissant, dusted it with powdered sugar and cinnamon, wrapped it up in a square image on Instagram and named it “ bougatsan”. It had everything a hybrid pastry needs; elements from two famous desserts, a clever name, and a hungry audience. All that, plus, it had history.
The bougatsa, brought to Northern Greece in the 1920’s by Asia Minor refugees, is a bakery staple. The semolina custard is wrapped in very thin and elastic dough, which becomes flaky and crisp in the oven, and is then dusted with the indispensible powdered sugar and cinnamon. In the Macedonian city of Serres, a bougatsa festival is held each year. In Thessaloniki, you’ll find a bougatsa shop on every corner. The bougatsan was, unsurprisingly, born in Thessaloniki.
Koparanis knew what he was doing. It wasn’t his first Greekified dessert, and previous creations had been appreciated among the guests at the newly opened Estrella. When I call him to ask why the bougatsan went viral, he corrects me: “It didn’t. A picture of it did.” “Every dish I create has a story, which may or may not be perceivable to those who eat it. With the bougatsan, I think people immediately saw the story behind it.” In other words, the Greeks could relate to it. The picture of the first bougatsan went viral, and Greek news channels, blogs, and magazines all took notice, sparking a loop of good press. When the attention spread internationally, through a mention in the New York Times and features in the Guardian and Saveur, Greek media got even more excited. As did the instagrammers.
And so it happened that this time, it took less than three years for a new trend to gain the full attention of the Athenians. Estrella Athens opened its doors on November 7th, and the response has been massive. Over 5500 likes on Facebook and 1200 followers on Instagram in a month is an overwhelming success for a fast food restaurant in Greece with no celebrity chef, advertising campaigns, or previous franchise locations.
The first time I visit the newly opened restaurant in central Athens, it is Sunday; brunch day, and the people waiting outside are the first thing I see when I approach. I meet with one of the managers, Ioannis Poulis, and his wife Georgia, to talk about the opening.
“We were not prepared for this!” Georgia laughs, “We couldn’t keep up at first – the first weekend was terrible.” When I say that the bougatsan is the first food item to go viral in Greece, she shrugs. “Is it? We’re just now learning what that means. We knew it was popular, but it’s so strange to see people waiting outside in the rain for a product that we sell.”
Like the Thessaloniki establishment, they keep an Instagram account and a Facebook page, but do nothing else in terms of marketing. “We’ve done nothing, and we keep getting calls from news channels, magazines, and news sites who all want to come and talk to us,” Ioannis explains. “When Estrella opened in Thessaloniki, Koparanis already had a following. That transferred to the restaurant and the bougatsan. Now imagine that Athens is a city of four million people.” That translates to a lot of foodies.
I am a big fan of the classic custard bougatsa, so I ordered my first bougatsan with a mix of anticipation and skepticism. Where would it fall on the viral food-scale? Is this a tasty cronut, or just a rainbow colored bagel? It is served warm, and it’s basically a deconstructed bougatsa. It is an on-the-go treat transformed into a dessert. And yes, it is delicious. The Athenians are going to be coming back for more. “We sell about 150 bougatsan every day, and double on weekends,” says head chef Dimitris Kalogiannis, “We just had to put in an order for more plates”.
Estrella isn’t, however, a bougatsan shop. It is an all-day brunch and street food restaurant, and there are other interesting items on the menu as well. I try the breakfast pizza, which isn’t a new idea, but the Estrella version is made with the dough traditionally used for making koulouri (bread rings); another Thessaloniki classic. Aside from food mashups, the menu is full of American breakfast foods featuring standout local ingredients. The French toast with cream cheese and pine honey is delicious, and the strapatsada (Greek scrambled eggs) on toast with country sausage is filling and completely satisfying. There is also a savory version of the bougatsan, where the croissant sits on top of a pile of light scrambled eggs, and is topped with smoked salmon or turkey.
Dimitris Kalogiannis and his food at Estrella Athens
Whether or not Greece’s first viral hybrid dessert will stick, we can expect to see a lot more of Estrella, and us Greek foodies can rest assured there will be more of where the bougatsan came from. Now we know how it’s done.
How about Lolly-koumades; cake-pops made out of loukoumades and covered in chocolate and honeycomb? What about an Ek-lair Kataifi, with vanilla/pistachio buttercream and a sprinkle of kataifi crunch? Or maybe a Gelato-boureko, where the custard in the galaktoboureko is switched out for butter flavored ice cream? Get your hats on chefs. We’re waiting.