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An Odyssey Through Greek Cuisine : The food at Cafe Athens is so good, patrons wonder if it's authentic. Even the dancing waiters are OK

November 11, 1990|CHARLES PERRY

During the time I spent in Greece, the food was always disappointing in the restaurants. I rarely sensed an insistence on the best ingredients, or an attempt to get the best out of the ingredients available. Everything seemed to be served at the same temperature, whether it was salad or shish kebab, coffee or rice pudding. I came across baklava that was like shoe leather in syrup.

One American woman of Greek ancestry, now living in Greece, practically blushes when asked where the good food is. "The restaurant tradition isn't very well developed," she says defensively. She mutters about a couple of little places in Athens, and says she's eaten well in some homes. Tough luck for me, though.

So I was dubious when I heard about the opening of an ambitious Greek restaurant called Cafe Athens (in a rather jinxed Santa Monica location that has recently seen restaurants open and close at the rate of about one a year). And when I heard there were dancing waiters, my hands involuntarily reached up to protect my ears; since the '60s, American Greek restaurants have developed the tradition of cranking up the music every couple of minutes when dancing waiters come out to intrude on everybody's dinner.

If I could have seen the interior of the place, I would have known that all was well. Cafe Athens is owned by the same people who own the Great Greek in Sherman Oaks, and the walls have the same stark, impressive graphic style. Only here, they are covered not with old Greek newspapers and nostalgic Greek political slogans (such as "Bulgarians Out!"), but with huge photos of famous Greeks and Greek-Americans and their names, writ very large: "SAVALAS." "LOUGANIS." "ONASSIS."

And like the Great Greek, Cafe Athens serves the kind of food I always hoped to find in Greece. It's so rich and carefully prepared that you hear people openly doubt that it's authentic. Indeed, one of the owners freely admits traveling to various countries around the eastern Mediterranean to find the best versions of dishes, which is perfectly legitimate, since many of the dishes are part of a common heritage throughout the region.

The food tends to be impressive, and impressively varied. Big, meaty stuffed grape leaves with a distinct dill flavor under the egg-lemon sauce. Sharp, garlicky cucumbers in yogurt (tzatziki). The richest fish-roe sauce (tarama) I've ever had, practically like fish-roe butter. An eggplant dip that at first brings to mind the Lebanese baba ghannuj, but is almost ethereally light; it tastes of yogurt rather than sesame.

Saganaki, the cheese served flaming in cognac, is a bit of a Greek restaurant cliche, but it really is good here, splashed with lemon juice at the end. The octopus in the octopus salad is tender without being mushy, and the raucous, oregano-flavored vinaigrette makes octopus seem a more fun-loving food than it usually is. Taverna-style eggplant is sliced and fried Japanese eggplant served cold with a sweet tomato sauce that could be Italian.

I did find the spiced meatballs a little strange--they have a peculiar doughy envelope around them, and seem to be the one item served at room temperature that should be warm. The hummus and the tabbouli could use a little lemon juice, but of course one thing you're absolutely sure of finding in a Greek restaurant is quartered lemons.

Like the Great Greek, Cafe Athens offers what it calls a "family-style deluxe dinner" that consists of 15 items. They're smallish portions, and it's a little hard to say what's an appetizer and what's an entree, but then the menu is altogether casual about that distinction. In many cases it's just a matter of the size of the portion.

Some items are so rich you'd be crazy to order them as appetizers, unless you want to knock down your appetite in a real hurry. The moussaka is one, approximately three times as meaty as any moussaka I had in Greece. The pastichio (the name is more often spelled pastitsio) is also fantastically rich: a 3 1/2-inch-high rectangle of macaroni mixed with ground meat and a bit of tomato, topped with sauce bechamel (which is as Greek as mayonnaise is American) and grated Parmesan.

The entrees make the usual specialty of lamb and seafood. The lamb is particularly good, especially the wonderfully sweet and tender rack of baby lamb. The oven-roasted lamb (one of the items also included in the family-style dinner) is roasted quite brown but is as tender as if it had been stewed. As for the fried calamari--I've been wondering how they get those big, thick rings of squid to remain so tender?

Sometimes you come across sausage at a Greek restaurant. Here there are two: a gamy lamb sausage and a veal sausage loud with black pepper, both roughly grilled and served with green beans in a meaty tomato sauce.

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