If located in Athens rather than Tarzana, Grecian Paradise would be called a taverna-- a cafe with homey food and atmosphere. The casualness transfers well to Southern California, even if some of the food is a bit hearty for certain life styles. Portions are ample and the menu includes numerous Greek classics, along with a few selections for the less adventuresome.
We avoided those appetizers that are also served as entrees and ordered tzatziki (a mixture of yogurt, shredded cucumber and garlic) and taramosalata (a blend of Greek red caviar, lemon, oil and garlic). Both were excellent spread on the accompanying warm pita bread triangles. Another good choice was the spicy, coin-size slices of lucanica sausage, grilled until crispy and served with tomato wedges.
For an ample sampling of the restaurant's Greek dinner specialties, order the combination platter that includes smaller portions of five items--moussaka, pastistio, dolma avgolemono, spanakopeta and lamb. The moussaka and pastistio are prepared with the same meat filling and bechamel sauce, but the former includes eggplant and the latter a thick layer of macaroni. Of the two, we rated the pastistio higher.
Dolma avgolemono (grape leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice and topped with egg-lemon sauce) were nicely seasoned, while spanakopeta (spinach and cheeses baked in buttery filo) received our highest rating of the five selections. The lamb portion of the platter varied--on one visit we were served chunks of meat in brown sauce, another time it was sliced.
The gyros entree is a little less filling. Beef and lamb are cooked on rotisseries and sliced to order. Also on the lighter side are the three types of souvlakia-- marinated lamb, chicken or beef cooked on a spit.
Of the seafood selections, we enjoyed the garides tourkolimano-- shrimp, sauteed in fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, wine and herbs. There was also plenty of onion and garlic in the flavorful sauce.
The menu says all dinners are served with soup of the day or salad, oven roast potatoes, rice pilaf and fresh vegetable of the day. On one visit that was true, another time the same combination platter came sans the roast potatoes and vegetable. Considering the amount of food, however, they were hardly missed.
Both times we ordered the soup of the day it was the classic chicken-lemon (avgolemono soupa), but once it was made with orzo pasta and the other time with rice. The pasta version was by far the better--less salty, more balanced in flavor and a better consistency.
A couple of things could be improved. The dinner salad had a well-balanced dressing and generous sprinkling of not-too-salty feta cheese, but the greens were not fresh. Also, I'd still enjoy tasting the rizogalo (rice pudding) that's listed on the menu, but wasn't available on either visit. It's certain to be a winner if anywhere as good as the galactobourako that we substituted. Their version of the dessert has rather firm custard sandwiched between thin layers of filo and served with a cinnamon- and rose water-flavored syrup.
The restaurant offers a good selection of Greek wines by the glass and bottle. One of my guests, reminiscing a visit to Greece, tried a glass of the Retsina. The rest of us found the aresinato house selection and Domestica more to our liking. There's also a full bar, which naturally includes the national anise-flavored liquor, ouzo and Metaxas brandy.
Service was generally good but did need a little nudge here and there. However, the friendliness and patience with explanations and pronunciations of the menu items made up for any shortcomings.
Grecian Paradise is a surprisingly large restaurant by today's standards. The bright blue and white decor gives it a fresh, clean appearance. Pictures and travel posters of Greece line the walls along with some musical instruments.
And speaking of music, it's part of the live entertainment offered Thursday through Sunday evenings beginning between 7:30 and 8 p.m. We never managed to hear it or see the belly dancer who performs Friday and Saturday evenings, but from the amount of musical equipment on the bandstand, dance floor and what we know about the Greeks' penchant for having a good time, it could be quite a contrast to the quiet evenings we enjoyed.
Grecian Paradise, 18928 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, (818) 705-0633. Open for lunch Tuesday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Tuesday and Wednesday from 5 to 10 p.m.; Thursday through Sunday from 5 p.m. until midnight. Reservations accepted. All major credit cards accepted. Lot parking in front and rear. Lunch entrees $3.45 to $5.95; dinner entrees $9.95 to $13.95.