For all the striking ways that we might prepare a mighty octopus – from sashimi, in the Japanese mode, to spicy Peruvian anticuchos – Costas Spiliadis's grilled version in the spare, Greek style makes the most gripping impression. That's no shock, given that the Montreal-based native of Patras, a Greek village near Olympia, learned the finer points of his culture's grill-centric cuisine from his masterly mother and Greek-island fishermen, who today still beat fresh-caught cephalopods upon shore rocks to tenderize their tentacles before sun-drying and throwing them atop open fires. Spiliadis presides over seafood shrine Estatorio Milos, a revered restaurant brand with outposts in Montreal, New York, and Las Vegas, and has made a name for himself with this classic appetizer, a staple in his dining rooms that has delighted seafood aficionados and converted fish-o-phobes for 35 years.
"It's very often that we'll get someone who does not think they like seafood but appreciates the octopus cooked like this," he says. "The reason is because it's not rubbery or chewy, and it has a clean taste. Fresh octopus, and ours gets to us within 48 hours from being in the Mediterranean, must not smell of fish or ammonia, and must be very white and firm." Spiliadis foregoes the traditional sun-drying process, but to ensure the meat is tender, he massages the tentacles aggressively for about 40 minutes in salty water. (It's difficult in today's urbane kitchens to find Mediterranean fishermen who will pound your mollusks against sharp stones.) Spiliadis's chief tip for North American home cooks interested in this recipe is to consider a more easily obtained Mexican octopus, which is often a high-quality catch in better seafood shops.
After slow-cooking and then grilling his octopus over a hot flame (octopus should either be cooked extremely quickly, or over a lot of time, and never in between), Spiliadis serves it with tart Santorini capers, acidic lemon juice, grilled onions, and the richest Greek olive oil. Rustically sliced into rings, the flesh has a crisp, browned edge that offers a juicy, smoke-infused bite – the opposite of the workout your gums might enjoy with pub-fried calamari. Spiliadis's octopus is authentically redolent of Greek island aromatics, and paired with fragrant sea fennel, pink peppercorns, and meaty chickpeas in the Milos tradition, it's epic poetry on the plate – what the chef elegantly refers to as: "the essence of Mediterranean cuisine, a true fruit of the sea."
• 1 octopus (about 6-7 pounds)
• 1 whole medium onion
• 2 bay leaves
• 2 dozen red peppercorns
• 1 cup white wine vinegar
• sea salt
• olive oil
• freshly squeezed lemon juice
• white balsamic vinegar
• salt and pepper
• flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Should the octopus still have its head, remove and discard. Wash the octopus well in cold water, add course sea salt and massage for 20 minutes.
Place the cleaned octopus on a baking pan. Slice one whole medium onion in half and add to pan along with two bay leaves, two dozen peppercorns, and one cup of white wine vinegar. Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes.
Prepare grill for high heat. Remove octopus from oven and let cool, uncovered, until the grill is ready. Cut
the tentacles into eight equal pieces.
Grill tentacles for five minute on each side, basting with a mixture of olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Remove the tentacles from the grill and slice it into thin slices and dress it with olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper to taste, capers, and thinly sliced onions.
Garnish with flat-leaf parsley and serve the grilled octopus hot.