About the only trait shared by Greek cuisine and Oklahoma-style barbecue is goodness. Goodness, that is, when the folks in charge of the soup kettles and oak-fired smokers happen to know just how to use them.
Fortunately, the gastronomically savant are in charge at two downtown eateries, Mary Pappas' venerable Athens Market, and the much newer Gellerosa Ranch Barbeque. Both places are relatively inexpensive, informal and low-key, and both offer respite at the luncheon and dinner hours.
Pappas and her restaurant have been fixtures downtown for some time. About a year ago, the Athens Market and its likable menu moved to comfortable quarters in the refurbished Senator Hotel, a small, Victorian-style office building nestled between the imposing bulks of Horton Plaza and the Meridian condominium tower.
Relatively little change resulted from the move. The menu remains a serviceable listing of mostly familiar Greek dishes, the portions continue to be enormous in something of an inverse ratio to the prices, and some patrons still prevail upon a staff member to "read" the residue left in the bottom of a cup of joltingly strong Greek coffee. (This type of fortune-telling resembles that of reading tea leaves.)
This is the place to exercise a good appetite. The cooks spoon up lavish servings of moussaka, pastitsio (a macaroni casserole), stuffed grape leaves and extra-thick lamb chops, and all meals include both soup and salad, as well as baskets of hot, crisp-crusted bread. Any spare space in the stomach can be devoted to a serving of galactobouriko, an especially nice custard encased in a bit of phyllo pastry; this very sweet and very eggy dessert tastes faintly of cloves.
An indulgent approach to seasoning gives Greek food much of its character. For example, one of the best appetizers, a plate of the homemade lokaniko sausage, gets its special savor from the inclusion of much grated orange and lemon peel. Served burning hot, the sausage slices are meant to be dipped in the accompanying tzatziki sauce, a garlic-yogurt-cucumber concoction that paradoxically cools the sausage while making it even spicier. (At this point, one may consider the hunter in the Aesop fable, who blew on his food to cool it, and on his hands to warm them.)
Given the size of the portions, ordering an appetizer does put the following meal in jeopardy, but there are several interesting choices, including the saganaki ( kaseri cheese flamed in brandy); taramosalata , or red caviar dip, and phyllo triangles filled with a choice of cheese or spinach.
A pair of hardy or at least committed diners can tour the menu most quickly by ordering the Athens Market Special, a soup-to-nuts banquet that costs $29 for two. It begins with a choice of lentil or avgolemono soups; progresses to salad (skipped on a recent visit out of the reasonable fear of being too stuffed to taste all the entrees); continues with plates bearing thick lamb chops, squares of moussaka and pastitsio, stuffed grape leaves, rice, and heaps of fresh, good green beans, and concludes with pastry.
The lentil soup was rich, savory and spicy; the avgolemono, also rich, compensated by being refreshingly flavored with lemon juice. Of the entrees, the most pleasant may have been the pastitsio, a homely but tasty concoction of macaroni baked under a custard-like crust with well-seasoned ground beef and tomatoes. The moussaka was perfectly workmanlike, but less towering than the best examples; usually, this cinnamon-scented casserole of eggplant and chopped meat is baked under an egg-enriched white sauce that rises like a souffle as it cooks.
The stuffed grape leaves were likable, but the requisite egg-lemon sauce, a delicious Greek variation on the more fattening French hollandaise, had been unpleasantly thickened with some foreign agent, most probably cornstarch. Each plate also included a thick lamb chop, pleasantly flavored with mint but cooked well-done; the waiter did not ask the doneness preference when taking the order.
Any of the above items can be ordered individually, and among other entree choices are chicken baked with lemon, oregano and olive oil; a dish of beef sirloin tips braised with onions and a dozen seasonings; roast lamb, and souvlaki, the traditional kebab of skewered lamb cubes. Entree prices run from $8.95 to $15.95.
The staff at Gellerosa Ranch Barbeque dresses in cowpoke fashion to honor the Oklahoma birthplace of its brand of cooking, but this style is rather at odds with the almost minimalist decor of gleaming white walls and scattered artworks. The two high-ceilinged rooms are airy and comfortable, and decor in any case seems a minor concern to the businessmen, lawyers and office workers who frequent them: The focus of everyone's attention is the huge, oak-burning smoker immured in a corner of the main dining room.