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Gyro King Expands His Court

Quail and Armenian sausage complement favorite Greek dishes at Athena's.

March 13, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA HILLS — When I first called Athena's, I asked if anyone in the restaurant spoke Greek, generally a good barometer for this type of restaurant. "How about Armenian, Turkish or Arabic?" shot back the voice on the other end of the telephone.

I was speaking with chef Avo Kilicarslan, who is of Armenian descent. I later learned that, along with Greek and Mediterranean cuisine, a good number of his dishes have a distinctly Armenian cast.

Many know Kilicarslan from Gyro King, his longtime Newport Beach restaurant. But here the chef has added quail, Armenian sausage and other good dishes to a core menu of Greek favorites.

This is quite a good-looking place to boot, a modern, upscale dining room decorated without the blues and whites typical of suburban Greek restaurants. Athena's has kept the distinctive overhead canopy of blond wooden slats installed by past tenant Daily's Fit and Fresh. But this restaurant has added cushy booths separated by tall curtains, affording real privacy. Tables are covered in light gray oilcloth. The floor is an attractive dark slate.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best nights to stop by because they feature belly dancing and international music performed by accomplished oudist John Bilezikian. (The oud is a lute-like, stringed instrument.)

On any night, Athena's appetizers are a must, even though Kilicarslan serves trencherman-size entree portions.

Sampler No. 2 includes spanakopita, flaky little spinach and cheese triangles; dolmades, delicate rice-stuffed vine leaves; feta cheese and olives. Sampler No. 3 is a trio of dips: taramosalata, a pink cod roe and olive oil; a smoky pureed eggplant dip, and the very Middle Eastern hummous, a thick paste made from mashed garbanzo beans and sesame tahineh.

The gaudy saganaki is a fried, breaded rectangle of kefalotiri, a hard Greek cheese now being made in Italy. (The Greek import, from the island of Kefalonia, is hard to come by.) Waiters make a big show of pouring Bacardi rum on your cheese and lighting it on fire at the table. The joke is that the cheese tastes better without the flambe treatment.

I'm particularly fond of two other appetizers: marides, delicious batter-fried smelts eaten whole, and soujouk, spicy, garlicky hunks of grilled Armenian sausage that Kilicarslan keeps around for his countrymen.

All dinners come with soup or salad, and you cannot go wrong here, except for the fact that neither leaves much room for dinner. The salad is a classic Greek horiatiki: crumbled feta, crisp greens, Kalamata olives, cucumber, tomato, thinly sliced red onion and lots of fresh herbs. When it is ordered, ask the waiter for a basket of grilled pita bread, a perfect complement to the salad.

Chicken avgolemono soup is an egg-rich chicken broth with a touch of rice, flavored with fresh lemon. The homemade red lentil soup is even better, though its flavor is far from that of Greek-style soups. This is a smooth puree heavily redolent of mint. I'm betting that some Armenian grandmother provided the inspiration.

Main courses offer no surprises except for the occasional misuse of salt. One of the house specialties, seven-hour roasted lamb, is a beautifully braised shoulder sliced into tender pieces. The dish could have been spectacular, but mine had so much salt it tasted of nothing else.

Kilicarslan is big on kebab-style grilled meats, typical in any Armenian restaurant. Try the ground chuck cylinders that Armenians call lule kebab, the lamb shish kebab, marinated grilled prawns and grilled quail (two birds to an order). The quail could do with less salt, but the prawns are terrific, and the lule and lamb shish kebabs couldn't be better. All meats come on nicely seasoned rice pilafs, flanked by a pile of mildly charred vegetables.

Moussaka is layers of eggplant, ground meat, a thin bottom layer of potato and a thin top layer of baked Bechamel sauce en casserole. Pastitsio, a classic Greek Sunday dish, is a macaroni-and-ground-meat pie cut into squares, with an even thicker Bechamel topping than on the moussaka. Another possibility is the gyro plate: thin, crackling pieces of seasoned ground beef and lamb, sliced off a spit and dressed with the natural juices of the meat. Kilicarslan is still the Gyro King, remember.

Finish a meal with strong Middle Eastern coffee (called soorj in Armenian), served in tiny porcelain cups. Kilicarslan makes it to order, so specify whether you like your soorj sweet and watery or thick and muddy. The homemade baklava is another good bet; this one is made with crushed walnuts and pistachios, lots of butter and an extra sweet, honey-flavored syrup.

Athena's is moderately priced. Appetizers, $2.25-$6.95; complete dinners, $8.95-$14.95; desserts, $2.25-$2.95.

BE THERE

* Athena's, 24351 Avenida de la Carlota, Laguna Hills. (714) 699-2700. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.

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