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Most Americans' ideas about Greece, like their ideas about almost everything else, have been shaped by the movies. In Never on Sunday and Zorba the Greek, zesty, fun-loving Greeks seem to do little except dance, make love and toss endless amounts of dinnerware against cafe walls. After visiting a couple of Valley Greek restaurants, I know why this image persists: The food and the music can make life seem wonderful. Keats composed an ode in honor of a Grecian urn. I'm much more tempted to rhapsodize about Greek skillets and bouzoukis. If you shot a glance whizzing by on Indian School Road, or stopped and peered in the front door, you'd never suspect that Olympic Flame serves outstanding Greek fare for just a few drachmas.
The place possesses all the ambiance of a Midwestern diner. It's a relic of the orange period of American decorating, about as close to the Aegean Sea as Howard Johnson's. There's surprisingly little in the way of ethnic touches: a large painting of ruins tucked away on the back wall, some plates with Greek figures and a few woven purses of the tourist variety with the word "Greece" stitched into them. And the homey service will make you feel like helping with the dishes, not smashing them. Maybe the familiar coffee-shop feel is supposed to put customers at ease with some unfamiliar food. You sure won't confuse most of the appetizers here with the Buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks you're accustomed to seeing on Valley menus. Taramosalata is orange-colored carp roe mixed with olive oil, onions and lots of lemon. Here it's blended with potato into a creamy mixture you scoop onto toasted Italian bread. It goes down great with a glass of retsina, the pine-scented Greek national wine. Even better, I thought, was the strong Spartan beer, which came with an icy cold frosted mug.
Another outstanding starter, and dramatic to boot, is saganaki. It's a hunk of kasseri, a mild, stretchy goat cheese, in an oblong casserole dish, doused with rum and brought flaming to the table. Our server spritzed lemon juice over it to put out the fire.
We liked this dish so much I checked out the kasseri cheese at AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods. It's $9.49 a pound, which makes this $3.95 appetizer a steal as well as a pleasure.
All dinners come with soup or salad, and the offerings here were better than they needed to be. The salad included olives, tomato and crumbled feta cheese, while the bean soup came in a rich vegetable broth.
The main dishes almost got us snapping our fingers, draping our arms over each other's shoulders and dancing to the piped-in Greek music. Pastitchio is a macaroni casserole for grown-ups. Made from ziti, ground beef, tomato sauce and a rich, white cream sauce topped with grated cheese, it's not for the cholesterol-squeamish. Cinnamon adds an exotic touch to an otherwise familiar combination of flavors. We loved it.
Another specialty is chicken spanakopitta. Spinach, feta cheese, bits of chicken and a dash of nutmeg are layered and folded into a lovely phyllo-dough crust. It's one of those dishes where taste and texture harmonize as well as early Simon and Garfunkel. Sitting at the edge of Europe, Greece picked up a heavy Middle Eastern touch in its food. The combo dinner gives some samples of this influence, and for the terminally undecided, this is probably the way to go.
Moussaka, my favorite Greek dish, is layers of fried eggplant and cinnamon-tinged ground lamb topped with a cream sauce and grated cheese. Olympic Flame's version is wonderfully smooth and flavorful.
There are also fragrant dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice, and perfumed with lemon and olive oil. A wedge of spanakopitta is also somehow squeezed onto the plate.
The only less-than-scrumptious item on the combo plate was the roast lamb. Its heady aroma could not make up for the gristly, chewy texture. All ten Greek dinners here come with a large mound of rice and golden-crusted pita bread lightly cooked in butter. None costs more than $8.50. Just two desserts are offered. But only marathon eaters will have the stamina to continue, anyway. There's a fine walnut baklava, drenched in honey, and rice pudding with firm grains swimming in a creamy sweet sauce.
Don't pass up the Greek coffee, a sweet, sludgy jolt of caffeine. And resist the impulse to launch the cup at the wall afterward.
In contrast to the sedate Olympic Flame, the Greek restaurant-nightclub Bacchanal pulses with energy. I haven't had as much ethnic fun since I once dodged flying bottles in an Iranian nightclub brawl. But the only danger here is staying up past your bedtime enjoying yourself.
Bacchanal leaves no doubt about its roots. Behind the stage stretches a huge mural of an Aegean port. Posters of Zeus and tourist sites line the walls, along with plates decorated in the style of ancient Greek art.
Rows of tables front the stage, like a Vegas showroom. In the rear, a raised area gives even those farthest away a clear view. The blinds are drawn, blocking an ugly strip of East Thomas out of sight and mind. By the 7:30 showtime on a recent Saturday night, the place was completely filled, and this isn't tourist season. The mood was festive, with lots of clinking glasses and hand-clapping. The crowd was a mix of handsome Mediterranean types who stood up when their dates returned from the rest room; couples celebrating anniversaries; and Midwesterners who think a Jersey cow in the fields is a sign of ethnic pluralism.