Opa for Business

Greektown, 8519 North Seventh Street, 602-674-8881. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 4 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Ever heard the story of Tantalus? Well, gather 'round, kiddies, here's the grim fairy tale:

According to Greek myth, Tantalus was a wealthy Lydian king, the son of Zeus and Pluto -- as in Pluto the nymph, that is, not Pluto the god of the underworld or Mickey Mouse's dog. Because of his divine connections, Tantalus was invited to live at Olympus, but he abused the hospitality. In an attempt to trick the gods into committing the impiety of cannibalism, he killed his son Pelops and served his flesh to the gods as a banquet.

The gods caught on to the gag after the fertility goddess Demeter noshed on a bit of shoulder. They restored Pelops to life, gave him a nice new shoulder made of ivory, and sent Tantalus to Hades. But they were too pissed off to stop there -- the poor fellow was forced to stand up to his neck in a pool of cool water. If he bent down, the water would drain away before he could get a sip. Fruit hung from branches over his head, but if he reached for them, a breeze would pick up and blow them out of his reach.

Thus did the Greeks give us the verb "tantalize." It was with their food, however, that they taught us what it meant.

After a hard day of inventing Western civilization, the ancient Greeks wanted to come home to a good meal. They developed a clean, fresh cuisine based on olives and olive oil and grapes and lamb and fish and beans and cheese and flatbread that still seems like the foundation upon which European chowing-down is built. It's the opposite of nouvelle cuisine.

Happily, there are about a half-dozen good Hellenic eateries here in the Valley where one can partake of these delights. The best of these, probably, are Greektown and Greekfest. If the gods really wanted to stick it to Tantalus, they could hang plates of food from these places on a few of the branches over his head.

If I had to give a slight edge to one of these excellent restaurants, I'd probably give it to Greektown, which moved recently from its former digs on Glendale Avenue into a roomier location, the emptied husk of a greasy spoon on Seventh Street, about a half-mile south of Dunlap. The transition hasn't done any harm to the food, the service or the atmosphere. The sense of simmering, authentic rowdiness is still there. The waiters still aren't above the occasional genial wisecrack, and you still hear the crash of a plate against a wall now and then, followed by a lusty shout of "Opa!" Best of all, this festivity seems unforced, not like a put-on for the benefit of us rubes.

The meals at Greektown aren't for birdlike appetites. They come with thick avgolemono -- a wonderful chicken, rice and lemon soup -- and a green salad with, oddly, potatoes. Thus, appetizers may serve to increase the weight of your doggie bag, not to mention your rear end.

But they're worth it. The delicate spanakopitas, spinach-filled pastries of flaky phyllo dough, have such a deceptively light flavor that it's easy to put away two or three before you realize what you've done. Tentacled creatures get fine treatment, too -- the calamari are buttery, while the octopus is marinated to a stronger, fishier taste. Both are scrumptious. Only the mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat failed to show up on my taste buds' radar.

Lamb is the main course that the rest of the world most associates with Greek cuisine. The lamb at Greektown in no way imperils national pride. On a recent visit, one of my companions, a lamb aficionado, had the roast lamb and proclaimed it the best he'd ever tasted. I sampled it, and he wasn't wrong -- it was sublimely moist and sweet and yielding.

A second companion found her veal oreganato good but not great, a bit too subtly flavored to make much of an impression. A bite from her plate told me that this was a fair assessment. The veal wasn't bad, but it couldn't stack up to the superlative lamb.

My favorite dish at Greektown, however, is souzoukakia, beef meatballs in a mellow sauce over firm orzo pasta. "Turkish meatballs," my waiter called them. "But don't say 'Turkish' too loudly around here," he added furtively.

For dessert, the inevitable baklava is elevated to Olympian heights by a blanket of fiercely sweet syrup. The less-Hellenic chocolate mousse is more problematic -- on one visit, it was turgid and heavy, and the waiter admitted it was an off night. But on a more recent visit, the mousse could have passed muster in a French restaurant.

Greekfest, 1940 East Camelback, 602-265-2990. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.

Just north and west of the Town and Country Shopping Center on Camelback Road, hiding demurely behind a free-standing Bank of America, is Greekfest, long the Valley's most admired Hellenic restaurant. There's plenty of basis for the esteem. Compared to Greektown, the atmosphere is more upscale, quieter, more refined, the setting more elegant and, with its pristine white walls, wooden floor and tasteful old-country tchotchkes, less obviously Americanized. It's an exceedingly pleasant place to eat, and the food is mostly superb.

A good way to avoid being overwhelmed by Greekfest's extensive, complicated menu is to opt for what the menu calls "antipasto," which is not, as at an Italian restaurant, a salad. At Greekfest, it's a bountiful sampler of several of the eatery's exotic appetizers, including taramosalata, tasty Greek-style caviar; melintzanosalata, a fine pasty "salad" of ground eggplant; revithosalata homous, a coarse bean salad; and dolmathes, refreshing grape leaves stuffed with rice and other goodies. Also included is fasolia, along with feta cheese, kalamata olives, a delicious tzatziki (cucumber-and-yogurt dip), and plenty of pita bread to put in it. Everything on the platter is terrific; it's well worth the $10 investment.

Some of the entrees, however, show the limitations of Greekfest's more reserved approach. The casseroles, served in small caldrons with pot-pie crusts on top, are examples. They're perfectly edible, but their ingredients are so thoroughly jumbled together that they lose individual character. In the moussakas, the flavors of the eggplant and the lamb sauce blend together instead of contrasting each other, and my companion said that though she liked her pastitsio -- a casserole made with pasta -- she had no idea what was in it. The casseroles are closer to comfort food than to fine dining. They're like leftovers from a church social -- great for a midnight refrigerator raid, not so good for a big night out.

My favorite entree at Greekfest is the lagos, a fall-off-the-bone leg of rabbit in a zingy, orangey-red baby-onion sauce with a side of rice. It's not to be missed.

Dessert is another must at Greekfest. The fine baklava is harder and drier than Greektown's version, but no less rich and nutty and satisfying. The real ambrosia on the dessert menu, though, is the galaktoboureko, a honeyed phyllo pastry filled with an exquisite custard.

Eat your heart out, Tantalus. Oh, sorry, forgot -- you've got nothing to wash it down with.

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