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George's: It's Greek for Deli

Family-run business serves good, fresh, unfussy food.


"I have to be careful. I've burned my eyebrows off doing this." With that, Demetri Loizides splashed brandy over a square of kasseri cheese and set it aflame to create a saganaki, the traditional Greek fried-cheese dish that's so frequently bungled in tourist restaurants. Not here, though. The cheese itself was as fresh as morning and flambeed to a perfect point of pillowy softness.

I may not be doing Loizides a favor by mentioning his saganaki. It's not even on the menu at George's Greek Deli in Long Beach, and he says it's tough for the kitchen to pull off when things are busy. But the fact that he made it as a special order when one of my friends raised the question is just one example of the sort of hospitality you'll find at this intimate, family-owned restaurant. Loizides, the jovial co-owner and chef, may not be willing to set himself on fire for his customers, but he comes pretty close.

He opened the restaurant in December with his father, George, a veteran owner of delicatessens from here to Africa. The recipes originated with the family's matriarch, Rodou. George's serves good, home-style Greek food at reasonable prices, but the real star is the relaxed, family atmosphere. For example, when it comes to choosing from the restaurant's list of Greek wines, the waiters don't merely allow you to have a taste before committing--they insist on it. And that goes for everyone at the table.

George's is housed in a long, high-ceilinged room, flanked by a deli case on one side and shelves of wine and other Greek groceries on the other. The main dining area inside is accented by wooden trellises and kitschy murals, but for my money the best spot is the pleasant patio, which is warmed amply enough by space heaters to be comfortable even on cool evenings. There's a weekly wine tasting on Wednesday nights, and the Friday night dinner special featuring slow-roasted leg of lamb. On Saturdays there's belly dancing.

The food is fresh and unfussy. A good place to start is with any of the five traditional Greek dips (the combination platter, a bargain at $9.95, includes generous dollops of all of them). Needless to say, they're accompanied by an abundant supply of pita bread. Most familiar are the fine renditions of tzatziki--yogurt made fresh on the premises and laced with garlic, mint and cucumber--and hummus, the classic Middle Eastern spread of garbanzo beans and sesame paste cut with olive oil and lemon juice. But the best, and one of my favorite dishes at the restaurant, is the interesting twist on taramosalata. In this version, red caviar is beaten together with bread crumbs, mashed potato, garlic and olive oil to create a creamy pink dip. It's just a bit thicker than mayonnaise and carries a delicate marine flavor without being fishy. However, if you're not crazy about the taste of roe, try the skordalia, a pleasantly pungent, somewhat mealier version of the same thing, without the roe.

The appetizers, several of which are also served in entree portions, are likewise satisfying. I've never been much of a fan of dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) because they're too often just slimy and skunky, but the ones here are standouts. Served warm with a side dish of that wonderful yogurt dip, they're filled with a savory mixture of ground beef, rice and tomato, and have a nice firm bite. Another delectable item is the keftedes, deep-fried, spiced meatballs. The spanakopites, miniature filo triangles layered with feta cheese and spinach, were enticingly fluffy and given a nice bite by the papery crispness of the filo.

The green salads are distinguished mainly by the freshness of the ingredients and the high quality of olive oil used to dress the greens. You can also order them with the addition of chicken, swordfish or fried calamari.

When choosing main courses, you'll be exhorted to order at least one portion of lamb chops. "These lamb chops come with a guarantee--if you don't fall in love with them, just send them back and I'll eat them myself," our waiter told us.

His confidence turned out to be justified. They'd been marinated to buttery tenderness in good olive oil and lemon juice, given a good kick of oregano and grilled to perfection. (Be alerted that the word "rare" is taken very seriously here, as it should be.) Most entrees are accompanied by fresh, piquantly seasoned green beans and a rice pilaf. The menu also includes various forms of pungently spiced souvlakia--the Greek version of kabobs--and among them the lamb and the shrimp are particularly good.

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