Athenian Bakery could make Lexington the Athens of the West again

Ilias Pappas, owner of Athenian Grill, said he has been looking for a while for the perfect spot to invest in downtown Lexington, where he sees exciting things happening.
Ilias Pappas, owner of Athenian Grill, said he has been looking for a while for the perfect spot to invest in downtown Lexington, where he sees exciting things happening. Herald-Leader

Athenian Grill, which built a following for authentic Greek cuisine with a food truck, then a tiny bricks-and-mortar restaurant off Ashland, then a larger restaurant on Locust Hill, is expanding in a new direction: baking.

Owner Ilias Pappas is adding a bakery to his Locust Hill restaurant and plans to serve breads, pastries and other traditional treats, and Greek coffees. He hopes to open it by mid-August, marketing to retail and wholesale customers, including caterers and event venues.

“Our goal has always been to have a bakery,” Pappas said. He originally wanted to put it in on Ashland Avenue but couldn’t get the permits he needed from the city, so he put the plan on hold. Last year, when he opened his second restaurant on Locust Hill, the site had more space than he needed.

Not anymore. The Athenian Bakery will go in right next to his restaurant, and the two will be joined together. He is working with Nomi Design on the look of the bakery, which he wants to be similar to ones he remembers from his childhood in Athens.

“It is something I grew up with. ... In the neighborhood I grew up, there were three of these places on every corner,” Pappas said. “The desserts, the bread, the cookies, the coffee, it’s everywhere in Athens and the smaller cities.”

The baked goods won’t be fancy cakes or sugary doughnuts but more like what you can get once a year at the Greek Orthodox bake sale.

He and his aunt, Louiza Ouraniou, have been testing recipes from their family in Greece.

“We really want to take a sweet tour of Greece,” Pappas said. “We’re deciding right now what we should include, what do we believe people will like, and what will hold up well.”

He expects to offer dozens of specialized Greek cookies, some “dry,” others with fillings including apricot, strawberry and chocolate, he said. Items will include koulourakia, a buttery pastry with a delicate vanilla flavor and many variations; paximadia, a harder cookie, made to be dipped into coffee, similar to Italian biscotti; troufes, bite-sized chocolate and caramel truffle-type treats, and melomakanona (sometimes called finikia in the United States), a honey-walnut cookie; and lots of others.

He also will have cakes in individual sizes and in bigger versions to share.

He plans to price things reasonably. “In a Greek bakery, it’s all about quantity,” Pappas said. “We want people to have a box of cookies at home, at the office … for companies to call for a platter of cookies for the office. We want to be inviting, warm and affordable.”

Using his connections to suppliers in Greece, Pappas plans to serve specialty coffees. And he hopes to create the same atmosphere that he remembers.

“We’re going to use china to serve the coffee, and we’re going to create a place we hope people will come to grab a cup of coffee in a comfortable environment,” he said.

The bakery will give him two “concepts” that he can expand to other locations, either alone or together.

And through his connection to Kroger, which has Athenian Grill food carts in several stores in Kentucky, he anticipates that some of the baked goods will be sold in Kroger’s bakeries under the Athenian brand.

Kroger confirmed that Pappas has presented his products and that they are under consideration.

His favorites?

“I love the traditional orange cookies, the koulourakia, the ones twisted together with orange zest,” Pappas. “And sadly, I eat them daily. And I have got to stop.”

Kourabiedes (Greek wedding cookies)

Ilias Pappas, Athenian Bakery

8 cups all-purpose flour

4 1/2 sticks of butter

2/3 cup castor sugar (extra-fine granulated sugar)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup blanched slivered almonds, toasted (toast for 5-10 minutes at 390 degrees)

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Rose water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In the mixer using the whisk attachment, beat the butter for 5 to 6 minutes on high speed until it turns white. Add the castor sugar and vanilla. Continue beating for 5 to 7 more minutes. As soon as the sugar is added, the volume of the butter might lessen, but it will rise again.

Remove the mixing bowl and add the flour in batches. Gently fold in with a spatula and add then add the almonds. The mixture should be soft but not so soft that it will stick to your hands.

Mold into balls the size of walnuts. Place them in rows, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until they turn light gold.

Remove from oven. Carefully move them from the baking sheet and place them on to a wire rack to cool. They are very soft and crumbly when hot.

When cool, spray them with rose water.

Put some confectioners’ sugar in a sieve and dust.