Acropolis Now

Think a couple of waiters singing "Happy Birthday to You" is effusive? This is only the beginning at Greektown. On the night we stop in for observation, there is singing; there is the presentation of the traditional lit dessert; there is even a personal serenade by Greektown's owner, Gregory Vassiliov.

"I wrote this song myself," Vassiliov tells Birthday Woman at another table. "It is called `Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow I Will Love You.'" He sings and accompanies himself on some type of stringed instrument. My faithful dining accomplice Goat and I think he's darn good. Both staff and diners applaud when he finishes.

"Thank you," he says. "I haven't sung in a while."
Don't get the wrong impression. Greektown has no regular live entertainment. "He just does that occasionally," our waiter informs us. Vassiliov has made it clear he wants his fourth Valley restaurant to succeed on the merits of its Greek cooking, not bellydancing. The only problem is he's created a too-tony showplace for his simple, homey cuisine.

Goat and I show up at Greektown with big appetites. (This is important. Greektown's portions are large. Do not attempt dinner here unless your stomach's gauge is on empty.) We ask for the nonsmoking section and are seated in a narrow-but-open railed-off area. Our enthusiastic waiter tells us the daily specials (with prices) in a Southwestern twang.

Get me into any restaurant from the Mediterranean and I want appetizers. Lots of them. This region's taste-teasers are hard to top in my book. We order a combination appetizer plate offering us samples of nearly everything, plus some flaming cheese (saganaki flambeau). While we take a closer look around, we nibble on tasty, hot garlic bread.

Even from our somewhat confined seating off the main dining room, Greektown looks spacious. And very Aegean. Blue and white predominate: woven bags, tiles, worry beads, pottery and the occasional Acropolis mural accent white walls; turquoise table cloths dressed up with white lace are topped with glass. Unfortunately, the patriotic colors only contribute to the cool, formal feeling that is the heart of Greektown's problem--Vassiliov's celebratory zeal notwithstanding.

While the environment and service may be hospitable, this is not your casual neighborhood hangout. Reservations are encouraged, especially on weekends, and prices are on the high side (dinner for two--without drinks or wine--came to $51 with tip). All of this seems incongruous with the hearty ethnic food served.

The high-finance table chatter of the oral surgeon seated behind Goat has us fascinated when our appetizers are delivered. The combination plate is huge: mounds of tsatziki (Greek dip), taramosolata (cold mashed potatoes with caviar, olive oil and lemon), skorthalia (cold mashed potatoes with garlic, olive oil and vinegar), and two tiropites (cheese puffs) and spanikopitas (spinach puffs) encircle feta cheese. Calamata olives and quartered tomatoes add color and flavor.

Though this is obviously an exercise in dipping, we have to ask our waiter for pita bread. When it comes, we get down to business. The feta is fine: not too salty, creamy-textured, seasoned with olive oil, vinegar and oregano. The phyllo dough puffs are buttery and flaky, but the spinach in the spanikopitas has a tinny taste.

As it turns out, I'm not too crazy about the dips. Of the three, the taramosolata is my favorite, with its vague pink color and subtle rosemary-lemon-oregano flavor; the tsatziki is herby, but ultimately forgettable; the skorthalia is almost violent with garlic.

The flaming cheese is a minor spectacle. Again, not for the extremely inhibited. Our waiter sets the kefalograviera cheese afire, lets it burn while he chops at it with a fork, then extinguishes the flames with the juice of a lemon. The end result is like eating hardening slabs of fondue: pungent cheese flavored with liqueur--and, of course, lemon. I like it.

Greektown includes soup or salad with dinner, and I'm happy to report it's not a throwaway course. My salad is big, and generous with the crumbled feta and calamata olives. Goat's lemony chicken-rice soup (homemade, of course) is positively divine. Oh, for a mama who makes soup like this! I could make a meal of it.

Our waiter diligently checks on our progress during each course. He responds to our comments with a heartfelt "All right!" or "Good deal!" We are nearly full already and know we must press on. We ask him to please remove our plates and bring our entrees. "They're ready when you are," he says.

The moussaka is large. "If you like eggplant, you'll like it," our waiter told us when we ordered it. Now I wonder why. A few tastes indicate that the plump purple wonder-vegetable in no way dominates this traditional layered dish. For me, the eggy bechamel topping and mealy-textured potatoes used as its foundation are the overpowering factors. I am a big fan of moussaka, but this version leaves me cold.  

Greektown's special three-way combination tonight consists of roast lamb, dolmades and pastitsio. The lamb has an unpleasant mutton taste. The pastitsio, billed as Greek lasagna, is more like macaroni and cheese: slender tube macaroni layered with cheese and ground meat and browned with bread crumbs. Dolmades disappoint as well. The varnishy-tasting grape leaves are wrapped around a meat loaf-rice mixture and topped with a congealing too-bright lemon sauce.

Both entrees come with our president's least-favorite vegetable and boring rice pilaf.

Sans guitar, owner Gregory Vassiliov is working the crowd. He visits each table and is friendly but not a nuisance. We can hear him chatting in Greek and English with customers about their recent odysseys to Greece.

Though we're stuffed beyond belief, we decide to try dessert. Frankly, we shouldn't have bothered. The rice pudding is average and sprinkled with cinnamon. The galactobouriko (custard-filled phyllo pastry) is big and wet--drenched with a too-sweet syrup.

As we drag our heavy bodies toward the door, Gregory Vassiliov kisses my hand and pats Goat on the arm. He thanks us both for coming to his restaurant. This is not what you think: He has no idea who we are. He is simply carrying out his role as involved host.

Safely ensconced in the car, Goat says, "Greektown reminds me of being in somebody's living room."

He's right. Greektown is definitely personal. But if it's like a living room, it's the kind reserved for formal entertaining, not the friendly family room. Frankly, I could do without the pretension.

Large portions do not make up for hit-or-miss food.

Mediterranean House, on the other hand, seems without affectations entirely. In looks it falls somewhere between your typical corner-of-the-grocery Middle Eastern restaurant and more upscale joints like Greektown. It is a casual neighborhood restaurant. The kind of place you could visit on a weekly basis: where you know you'll eat a good meal at a decent price and don't have to dress up to do it.

Goat and I are joined by an out-of-town dining accomplice on our expedition to Mediterranean House. Many tables are filled in the small restaurant and the cross-cultural waitresses (they're Oriental) know many patrons by name. We immediately take to the subtle touches like green silk plants, filigreed tableware and slices of lemon in our water glasses. We feel at home.

Our dining accomplice is one of those men who still think they're growing boys: He requires three big meals a day, minimum. Concerned about ordering enough food, I ask our waitress if the combination platter is big. She says she thinks we'll be satisfied--but she doesn't know our friend.

In fact, my initial instincts are right. We should have requested a double portion or ordered each appetizer dish separately. The platter, comprised of hummus, falafel and baba ghanouj, is perfect for two, but not for three (us three, anyway). Or may it's just that it's so good. All I know is the crunchy, mild-spiced falafel balls disappear in seconds and we fight over who gets the last swab of smoky, lemon-flavored hummus and creamy eggplant dip. I was disappointed at the use of domestic black olives as garnish, rather than Greek olives.

You'll have no pita worries at Mediterranean House. Here the pocket bread is warm and plentiful and served in a gingham-covered basket. Mr. Out-of-Town proclaims the pita "great," but that says more about his appetite than his palate. The pita is no different from the packaged kind from California you buy at the aforementioned Middle Eastern groceries.

I was sorry we didn't order more spanikopita. (One order at Mediterranean House yields one spinach-feta phyllo triangle.) It is excellent: dill-flavored, not too greasy, featuring fluffy phyllo and fresh-tasting spinach.

The three of us decide to split two bowls of soup, one Mediterranean and one Creamy Lentil. The former is a hearty tomato-based lamb and beef concoction dotted with tiny Greek pasta. It's quite good.

As is the Creamy Lentil. Served in a small, lidded crock, this dark, smooth soup has a surprising spicy kick to it, induced in part by basil and cumin. It is superb.

When the Greek dinner salad arrives, I am happy to note that its size is just perfect. Fresh crumbled feta and an olive-oil and lemon vinaigrette brighten the pretty mix of romaine and iceberg lettuce, shreds of red cabbage, tomato, chopped Bermuda onion and (hurray!) calamata olives. It's a winner.

We are in the midst of a discussion comparing bouzouki and sitar music when our entrees arrive. Everything smells and looks fabulous! Chicken Shushka, a chicken-tomato stew served over rice, is stocked with fresh mushrooms, peas, carrot, corn and onion. It is piping hot and has a pleasant fennel taste which makes me think of Italian sausage.  

Mediterranean House Steak is thin, grilled and sprinkled with sesame seeds and sliced green onions. The charbroiled steak is mildly spicy and thoroughly soaked in sherry. The wine taste comes through strong, but it's not enough to interfere with your ability to drive home.

Combination Shish Kebab comes still skewered, which I happen to prefer. Perfectly grilled chunks of lamb, chicken and beef are interspersed with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes. Everything slips off the skewer easily. The meats are easy to cut and tender inside; the vegetables suitably singed, but not mushy. The one weak part of our meal is rice: 1) There isn't enough; 2) it's too highly spiced. The bright orange-red color and glumps of chili powder make it nearly inedible. We are forced to leave most of it on our plates.

Even our hollow-legged friend is full by meal's end, so we opt to share a piece of baklava for dessert. Most of the time baklava is too sweet for me, but not this version. It is moist, but not wet; buttery, but not overly rich. Is it my imagination, or do I taste apple betty inside the nut-topped pastry?

Need I say more? What could be more comfy than your childhood dessert? Mediterranean House may just become my second home. Greektown, 539 East Glendale Avenue, Phoenix, 279-9677. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 5:30 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Mediterranean House, 1588 East Bethany Home, Phoenix, 248-8460. Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 4:30 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

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