Zaytinya – Washington, DC

#701 9th Street NW
Washington, DC
(202) 638-0800

Hi readers!

As I am sure many of you are aware, the northeastern States have endured quite a few battles with Mother Nature this summer – including some blistering hot heat waves, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, and Hurricane Irene.  Fortunate for me, I was only around for one of those events and managed to get safely in and out of the nation’s capital, and enjoyed some good eating along the way.  While this will be a pictureless-post due to my not wanting to whip out my cell phone during this particular meal, I still wanted to put some thoughts down and share my experience at Zaytinya, which offers Turkish, Greek and Lebanese cuisine.

Mediterranean cooking is not something I indulge in a great deal but when I do, I am always pleasantly surprised by the boldness of flavors that can be captured by a talented kitchen.  In the case of Zaytinya, their celebrated chef is José Andrés, recently named this past spring as an “Outstanding Chef” by the James Beard Foundation at their annual awards gala in New York City.  The restaurant is clearly on the popular destination list by locals and visitors alike.  Without a proper reservation, we had to wait a little while at the bar (where you can still get food), before a table opened up for us later in the night.

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Athene’s – Vancouver, BC

3618 West Broadway
Vancouver, BC
(604) 731 4135

After initially having some difficulty finding Athene’s courtesy of my lackadaisical reliance on Google Maps, we found our way to the front entrance on a late weekday evening. Right away, the dimly lit interior and relaxed atmosphere made me feel as if we were being welcomed into the living room of a beloved heritage home. Inside, the place was already abuzz with a few full tables of diners as we were led to an empty table by the front window. Perhaps it was the absence of strong interior lighting and the fact that it was past 8pm already, but I did not get a sense of that tacky, white-everywhere-on-the-walls style of decor that seems to be the aesthetic of choice in too many North American Greek restaurants.

As a shared starter, my dining companion and I ordered a few slices of some wonderful pan-seared Saganaki Greek cheese. It was brought to our table by one of the servers in a small cast iron skillet, and splashed with a big squeeze of lemon before being placed on our table. The crispy golden exterior of the rectangular pieces which gave way to that rich creamy inside upon taking a bite was as good as expected. Frankly, how can you go wrong with this contrasting texture combination, brought to life with the acidity of the fresh lemon!

As a change of pace from the meat-focused choices I made at Candia Taverna, on this night I elected to go for the Kalamaris Skaras (charbroiled, lightly marinated sections of squid tubes) served with sides of Greek Rice, potatoes and of course Greek Salad. The smoky scent from the grill had transferred really well into the pieces of squid, which were not at all rubbery or excessively dried out, which is always a concern with this ingredient when eating out. They were seasoned just right, with hints of garlic and oregano. The accompanying carbohydrates, as ordinary as they always are in Greek cuisine, were fine as filler, and the salad refreshing.

To ensure that I would not leave without having a sampling of what is probably the most popular dish – the Lamb Souvlaki – I had a piece or two from the other plate on the table. They were clearly much better seasoned and bolder in flavor than what I ate at Candia. On top of this, the pieces were so much more moist and juicy inside. Though my sample size is small so far on Foodosophy in terms of my Greek reviews, hands down Athene’s has impressed me the most with how they prepare and cook their lamb. I hope to go back again to confirm this, just to make sure it was not just one lucky night with a skilled cook in the kitchen, and that the consistency is there before giving an all out recommendation.

I know some will say that Greek food in general is not overly creative and pretty standard from place to place. I suppose this could be said of most other cuisine. Though I do appreciate the exciting flavor combinations, and have a weakness for their grilled protein dishes, I do not have it all that often. Though with this far west end of West Broadway being the heart of the Hellenic Community of Vancouver, I am sure there are many fans in the neighborhood, and I still need to check out a few more Greek establishments in the district. Stay tuned…

Athene's on Urbanspoon

Candia Taverna – Vancouver, BC

Candia Taverna Greco-Roman Cuisine
4510 West 10th Avenue
Tel: (604) 228 9512
Hours: 7 days a week, 4pm to midnight

Few ethnic cuisines have such a see-saw effect on me between love and hate as Greek food does.  The reason for this revolves around the use of certain ingredients or cooking methods for which I have a strong fondness for: cheese, grilled meats and seafood, yogurt, garlic, lemon, potatoes.  And on the other hand, my dislike for anything that tastes like licorice such as ouzo and fennel,  and the generous use of things such as mint, grapevine leaves, olives and eggplant that turns me off from many dishes in Greek cuisine.  Over the years, I also grown to enjoy lamb meat which is a popular protein, though this tends to heavily depend on the quality and how well its cooked.

My impressions of the Lamb Souvlaki at Candia Taverna was just so-so.  The pieces were generous in the large serving, though I felt they were under-seasoned, overcooked and dry.  The accompanying rice was really bland, and the grilled vegetables also very ordinary.  The simplicity that I usually associate with Greek food was there, but the bold, bright, over-the-top flavors were not.  I know there are better versions of this in Vancouver, and will aim to seek them out.

As a second dish, we had the Greek Pizza, as recommended to us by our server.  This was a home run!  A full combination of toppings, even those dreaded olives that I usually pick off (I’ve learned when they are cooked, the taste does not bother me as much).  The crust was crispy but not overly so nor burnt, and the base of the pie had a still soft consistency that would fold nicely when lifted from the plate.  The spread of the toppings was generous, as peeling off the layers of cheese revealed, you could see each of the ingredients on every single slice.  I had not thought of a Greek restaurant as being so skilled at serving up pizza, but this place certainly changed my mind.

For atmosphere, Candia Taverna is very homey, rustic and the lighting is set quite low.  The spacing between tables is narrow, making for a cozy setup, especially when the room is full, as it was on this weekday evening.  Larger groups should probably phone ahead and reserve, as there are only a few tables that can really accommodate parties of over six.  Service was friendly and not obtrusive.  I could sense that they have a decent delivery business for their pizzas, judging from the phone calls and staff chatter I could hear while dining.  Based on my experience, the callers know what’s really good on the menu.

Candia Taverna on Urbanspoon

Crete Souvlaki (and OK Gas) – Calgary, AB

Crete Souvlaki and OK Gas
2623 17 Avenue SW
Calgary, AB T3E 0A5
(403) 246-4777
Mon-Fri: 9:00AM-10:00PM, Sat-Sun: 11:30AM-9:30PM

When one mentions gas station food, take a minute and think about what comes to mind. For me, i immediately think of chips and chocolate bars. Stale gummies. Ice cream bars. Diesel flavoured pastries. Dried out beef jerky. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, three day old hot dog and fried chicken. Gas station food is generally about convenience, and very little about the taste. However, OK Gas and Crete Souvlaki in SW Calgary is one such station that is bucking the trend. Next time you stop to fill up, treat yourself to some… Greek Food!?

I first noticed Crete Souvlaki driving by it on my way to Spiros – my long ago favorite pizza place in Calgary. I noticed it not because it was immediately attractive, nor appealing, but because the juxtaposition of Souvlaki and Gas struck me as odd. Gas station Greek? Ugh.

Sometimes, restaurant information are like rumours – whispers on the wind, information you hear in snippets from a variety of sources, until you are unable to differentiate the sources, and fact from fiction. Typically, you’ll hear little bits regarding a place until finally decide you’ve heard enough to give it a try.

In the subsequent year,  I’d heard several people mention, or inquire, about Crete Souvlaki. “Great Greek food in a gas station!”, and “have you seen that Greek place in the gas station!?”. Simultaneously curious, and slightly repulsed by the concept, many people knew of them, but few had tried them. Those that did seemed to be converts. Great Greek was the common refrain. My only question was, was it “great gas station Greek”, or “great Greek in a gas station”? It’s popularity could very well be something of novelty. After hearing so many whispers, I had to try it.

I have to say, my first attempt was actually fairly painful. The food was bland, the lamb was ridiculously gristly and overcooked, and most of the salad ingredients tasted like they had been sitting in a metal bowl for far too many days. I passed the location off as novelty, and nothing more.

Then the whisper came again. “You ordered the wrong thing. Crete Souvlaki is all about the tzatziki. It’s fantastic. Best in the city”. Hear that a few times, and the memory of gristly lamb, over-lemon’d potatos, and crappy greek salad start to fade away. Replaced with this idea that something as simple, and more often than not poorly executed, as tzatziki, could be done well. In a gas station. A return trip.

The tzatziki is good. Really good. Creamy, rich, it’s been properly strained. You can see cucumber, taste the dill and lemon. Loaded with flavour. Hmm. Best in the city? Not sure. But it’s up there. The pita are the flat, doughy disks of pita that I don’t like. But the tzatziki redeem them. With the Souvlaki and fries? Excellent. The Souvlaki is actually only average, and the fries arent great. But Tzatziki makes everything better. You can see why tzatziki is an order all in it’s own, and why they charge a lot for it. It’s like butter – it makes everything better.

A good experience emboldens you. Spanakopita. Phyllo, feta, spinach. Excellent tzatziki delivery vehicle right? Well, the magical tzatziki cannot even redeem this. Dry, pasty, flavourless, the spanakopita is terrible. The tzatziki fails. Short lived euphoria.

In an overall assessment of Crete Souvlaki and OK Gas, it comes down to a very simple list to remember. The tzatziki is great. The souvlaki is good. Everything else sucks. Calamari is frozen and rubbery. Spanakopita, don’t even get me started. Moussaka? Flavourless and mushy. Terrible. But don’t take my word for it, I’m sure you’ve heard the whispers too. Try it yourself, but i’d suggest ordering a lot of Tzatziki with your meal. After all, it can only be an improvement.

Crete Souvlaki & Gyros on Urbanspoon

Dio Deka – Los Gatos, CA

Dio Deka
210 E. Main St.
Los Gatos, CA 95030
Open 11:30am-2:00pm, 5pm-10pm Mon-Fri. 5pm-10pm Sat. 10:30am-2:00pm, 5pm-9pm Sun.

As a 15 year old (more years in the past than I’d like to admit), I went to Greece as part of a high school trip. While I had travelled abroad a number of times before, this was my first visit to Europe and the history, people and food (yes, even then), perhaps predictably, made a lasting impression. While I’ve done quite a bit more travelling since then, I’m not sure I’ll have such a strong memory of Europe as the first night at our hotel on Parthenonos street, with the namesake monument lit up and viewed perfectly from our room’s balcony like a floating home for the gods. Our late dinner comprised of rather exotic fare for a young Canadian lad – moussaka (delicious!) and baklava – helping to take some of the sting out of a long and delayed trip.

Fast forward to a recent trip to Dio Deka, a rather well-received, modern and pricey Greek restaurant in upscale Los Gatos, CA. Instead of the sloppy, primally satisfying street food served nightly in the Plaka, the owners wanted a place where Greek cuisine could be experienced through a highly refined lens. The tzatziki appetizer resembles not so much Monet – broad-brush impressionist tzatziki such as that I make at home (a handful of this, a pinch of that) – and much more Ansel Adams, made with great clarity, executed with precision, and carefully calculated to hit doubles (if not home runs) with American diners.

The aforementioned tzatziki had clearly been made with yogurt painstakingly squeezed of all water, leaving behind a very thick spread that more than slightly reminded me of herbed cream cheese. It was very tasty, but was clearly lacking garlic (as the foodosopher pointed out about two milliseconds after it hit his taste buds) and the normal yogurt tang that one would otherwise expect. The popular lamb meatball appetizer, each skewered on a small stick of rosemary, were similarly well-executed, though the sauce was a bit non-descript.

The terrific grilled calamari salad, produced from the mesquite grill which constantly belched smoke into the large ventilation system, had beautiful char marks while being impressively tender.

This same grill produces the famous Dio Deka lamb chops, three to a plate and cooked, after some negotiation, to a tip-top perfect medium-rare (which required asking for it rare-to-medium-rare). Some have criticized these lamb chops for lacking “flavor”, by which I think they mean that characteristic lambiness that causes some to shy away. I’m not in that camp, as I prefer it when the meat expresses its origin sotto voce, rather than yelling in my ear, so I found the subtle flavor rather delicious. The double-thick Berkshire pork chop was similarly flawlessly executed – it was cooked exactly to the knife edge between underdone and overdone that is often so elusive with pork. The accompaniments with these dishes were exactly that: no more, no less. One entree, a braised lamb shank with orzo, didn’t come from the grill. The meat itself was braised lovingly to falling-apartness, but the orzo was far too rich with butter and cheese that made the meat seem lean (not an easy task). We did not opt for any desserts, but they certainly looked to be great crowd-pleasers. The “Greek beignets” seemed to appear at every table, although I’m not so sure they would be ten percent as popular if the menu read “Greek doughnut” instead. The wine list was quite strong, even by Bay Area standards. There are a good two to three dozen wines available by the glass, with a handful of interesting wines interspersed among the sea of populist choices.

The owners have succeeded – wildly, by all appearances – in their quest to bring updated Greek cuisine to the well-to-do masses. However, this success comes at the expense of the Greek-ness of the whole experience. If one wanted to be cynical, one might even claim that Dio Deka is really an American steakhouse with a definite but carefully-measured Greek twist. The menu seemingly explores a rather small fraction of Greek cuisine in order to ensure that the food retains a familiarity for American palates (although further visits might be needed to fully confirm this – the restaurant for some reason has taken the menu off their website, at least from what I can tell). This populist path means that it is a very useful place for parties with less-adventurous eaters who nevertheless want to experience something different. The noise level was a bit high, though, so don’t take the grandparents from Iowa unless you’re sure they’re up for it. The strength of the restaurant are the dishes from the grill station which were all executed with GPS precision and are the reason to go back. It won’t replace in my heart my first late-night lamb souvlaki, however imperfect it was, but not for a lack of trying. It’s not so much food that has been dumbed-down as food calibrated perfectly by their shrewd business plan.

Dio Deka on Urbanspoon