I’m going to be honest here. I'm not crazy about Greek-American food. It's greasy. It's heavy. The components are unidentifiable as they blend together into flavor oblivion. Seriously, what’s with that hunk of spinning mystery flesh? Processed gyro meat tastes like Mediterranean Steak-Ums, spanakopita sometimes contains cottage cheese and, more often than not, Greek salads come topped with a one-inch cube of inferior feta.
How is it that Greeks wrote the first cookbook and birthed modern winemaking only to toss a few pita-wiches at unsuspecting diners from street carts? Ancient literature and modern texts sing the praises of Greece’s emphasis on grub-derived pleasure. Really? Then what the hell have I been eating?
With this in mind I decided to give Athens Eclectic Greek a go, though I admit my approach was circumspect.
Located in the Far North Shopping Center on San Mateo at Academy, Athens Eclectic is quietly redefining the stale image and taste often associated with Americanized ethnic cuisine. Typical blue walls are classed up with black leather, white linens and remarkably subdued décor. No life-size Zeus statues giving you the stink eye; no plaster columns that serve zero structural purpose.
Proprietor Kostas Petropoulos does more than serve Greek food. His dishes give insight to a deep-seated love of his heritage. At Athens you don’t just eat; you experience generations of culture.
Nothing describes a nationality quite like its booze. Greek wine is relatively unknown and under-explored in the U.S. Its unexpected flavors can seem coarse at first sip, but keep at it—like Virgil's Trojan horse, Greek wines deliver surprising punches long after you think you've figured it out. Boutari Retsina ($6.50 a glass) is a traditional white made from Savatiano grapes. A simple grape that is largely neutral, its wines are anything but. During fermentation pine resin is added, giving the finished product an almost gin-like flavor that is pungent and perfectly suited for any of the orektika, or appetizers.
Shouting “opa!” when the fire starts is optional.
Meals start with soup or salad. In the fassolatha bean soup, legumes float in a nimble broth of tomato and carrot. Greek salad is heavy on the olive oil, but introduces tangy feta in manageable crumbles that tickle taste buds rather than rendering them useless.
Though a simple dish, saganaki opa opa ($8.99) is exciting and enormously satiating. A slab of imported kefalograviera cheese is breaded and fried in butter and dry white wine, then flambéed tableside with Metaxa (Greek brandy) and doused with a squeeze of lemon. Accompanied by homemade grilled pita wedges, the salty sheep’s milk cheese melts beautifully. Shouting “opa!” when the fire starts is optional.
Tzatziki ($6.99), a dip made from mild yogurt, shredded cucumber, dill and lemon, is bright in taste and creamy in texture. A huge mound is flanked by pita wedges and garnished with a plump, briny kalamata olive.
Though huge in portion, the patitsio ($13.99)—slightly overcooked tubular pasta layered with cinnamon-spiced ground beef and buried under an inch of rich béchamel sauce—is surprisingly delicate.
Athens’ seafood, or thalassina, is amazingly fresh. Petropoulos says he brings in fish that's never been frozen and is delivered as often as needed, sometimes daily—a fact reflected in both quality and price. Broiled grouper ($18.99) is firm and mellow, and packed with a sweet crab stuffing that's more crab than stuffing.
Not to be outdone, Athens’ lamb dishes let the meat shine. A souvlaki pita ($8.99) tops the barnyard beast with crisp veggies and tzatziki that enhance the savory lamb instead of masking it.
An order of galatobouriko ($4.99) may be unpronounceable but shouldn’t be passed up. Layer after layer of buttery, flaky filo is filled with thick egg cream custard, drizzled with a light honey-and-butter sauce and crowned with shredded melon.
Chocolate and Greece aren’t two words usually used in the same sentence, but they should be. Chocolatina ($7.99), dark chocolate cake, is moist, rich and hedonistic.
Looks like I got schooled. The staff practically held my hand and taught me to enjoy properly prepared Greek cuisine. With imported ingredients and an emphasis on foods at the peak of freshness, Epicurus himself would approve.
The Alibi recommends:
• A glass of Boutari Retsina
• Saganaki opa opa
• Any and all thalassina
Athens Eclectic Greek, 6300 San Mateo NE, 821-6908. Hours: Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Price range: moderate to expensive. Credit cards, booze, large parties.