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TWIST OF FETA

Greekfest, 1940 East Camelback, Phoenix, 265-2990. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

For individuals, biology is destiny. Gender, intelligence, height, musculature, temperament--each of us has to work with what we're born with. Yes, there's plenty of room for individual variation within the biological framework. But no amount of effort on my part, for example, will let me give birth, understand computers or break into the Suns' starting lineup.

For nations, geography is destiny. Britain, surrounded by water, took to the seas and built an empire. Saudi Arabia found itself sitting on an ocean of oil. Armenia had the misfortune to border two great powers, first the Turks, then the Russians.

Geography determines culinary destiny, too. Norwegians, far from the tropics, don't eat plantains; Japanese, with little grazing land, don't raise lamb; landlocked Afghanis don't eat fish.

Located at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, Greece is as well-situated as any place on Earth to be a gastronomic paradise. From the east come eggplant, lamb, yogurt, rice and the fragrant scents of cinnamon and cloves. From southern Europe come shrimp, squid, pasta and the heady aroma of olive oil, garlic and lemon. If you can't find something to enjoy in the Greek kitchen, check your pulse.

Oddly enough, there are only about half a dozen Greek restaurants in the Valley. Pricey Greekfest, at the high end of the cost scale, caters to the disposable-income crowd. The inexpensive Olympic Flame takes care of the budget-minded.

An exceptionally pretty, comfortable spot, Greekfest sends out good vibes even before the food arrives. The room is divided into several eating areas, affording a cozy sense of intimacy. The green marble tile floor gleams, the wood ceiling suggests a rustic island taverna, fresh flowers are strategically placed and tables are draped with embroidered linen protected by glass tops. Naturally, like any ethnic restaurant, Greekfest displays artifacts from the home country: woven purses, urns, paintings. And homesick natives will be cheered by the rack of Greek magazines by the entrance.

The Greeks are great noshers, as Greekfest's two menu pages devoted to starters suggests. The most cost-effective way to sample the greatest number of appetizers? Order the combo platter, called "Greek antipasto." It comes with several small tastes that really can't be satisfactorily shared by more than two people.

On it, you'll find taramosalata, caviar for the masses. It's made from mullet roe, which is blended with olive oil, lemon and shallots. Refreshing tzatziki combines yogurt, cucumber and herbs. Dolmathes, stuffed grape leaves, are embellished by a creamy lemon sauce. My two favorites: melintzanosalata, smoky eggplant mixed with a sesame paste and lemon; and fasolia salata, white beans marinated in olive oil and lemon, then pungently zipped up with onions and parsley.

Everything on the platter is designed to be eaten with pita bread. And Greekfest takes advantage of that. If you want another basket of the fresh pita--and you will--you'll get nicked for $1.50. It seems like an unnecessary cheap touch, like charging extra for rice at a Chinese restaurant.

I almost went through a basket on my own with the Loukaniko saganaki. It's a particularly fragrant appetizer, lamb sausage flamed with brandy and extinguished with a squeeze of lemon, served on a sizzling iron skillet.

Meals come with a pleasant, feta-topped Greek salad, designed to tide you over until the entrees are ready and perhaps to encourage you to call for another basket of pita. Resist the temptation. That's because you still want to be hungry for some outstanding monuments to Greek civilization. Moussaka is superb. Served in an earthenware crock, it's a bubbling casserole of baked eggplant layered with ground lamb, coated with cinnamon-tinged b‚chamel sauce and topped with a cheesy crust. Greekfest's pastitsio, a Hellenic variation of lasagna, is also a revelation. The Greeks keep the pasta, but get rid of the ground beef, mozzarella and tomato sauce. Instead, pastitsio substitutes lamb and the same rich b‚chamel sauce and grated cheese crust that gild the moussaka. If you're looking for a different pasta experience, this dish will grab your attention.

Garithes microlimano is a lusty shrimp plate, four good-sized crustaceans saut‚ed with feta cheese and moistened by a wine tomato sauce. The mound of rice pilaf alongside, studded with nuts and raisins, makes a fetching accompaniment. Exohiko is particularly savory, chunks of lamb mixed with cheese, eggplant, mushrooms and zucchini, enfolded in golden brown phyllo dough. Lamb souvlaki, however, is less successful--the grilled cubes of leg of lamb ought to have been a lot more tender.

Greekfest's desserts are magnificent, especially if you have a highly sensitive sweet tooth. Under no circumstances leave here without ordering galaktoboureko, a luscious custard pie wrapped in a light phyllo crust, soaked with honey and perfumed with cloves. Just as mesmerizing is kataifi, shredded phyllo dough crammed with pistachios, almonds and walnuts, drenched in a numbingly sweet honey syrup. Despite the ethnic food label, a meal here doesn't come at ethnic joint prices. With a couple of $4 beers, two hungry people can quietly run up a $50 to $60 tag before tax and tip. I guess it's destiny.

Olympic Flame, 4041 East Thomas, Phoenix, 224-0213. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

If you want to get a line on the kind of meal you'll be getting at Olympic Flame, check out the cash register. It's a relic that dates back to approximately the Second Punic War.

When I asked the proprietor why she used it, she pointed over to a shiny new computerized model at the other end of the counter, with the cord wrapped around it. "We couldn't get it to work," she shrugged.

The hearty Greek-Italian food sports the same virtues as the register: solid, no-frills and utterly reliable.

After a long run, the owners closed down the Olympic Flame on Indian School (in the spot now occupied by Cafe Brazil) more than a year ago. Why jump back into the restaurant wars? "We got tired of sitting around," they explained. Valley diners who appreciate budget-priced ethnic fare are the beneficiaries of this pent-up kitchen energy. This new place is a lot smaller and a lot more appealing than the old location, which had an institutional coffee-shop feel. There's a long, narrow room, lined with brick, decorated with a few woven Greek bags and framed photos of ruins.

If you've never been to a Greek restaurant, make sure you order the saganaki appetizer. It's semisoft kasseri cheese, baked, doused with liquor and brought flaming to the table to a chorus of "Opa!" from the staff. Kalamaria--lightly breaded fried squid--don't require undue mandibular exertions. Squeeze on some lemon to help perk up the flavor.

The bargain-priced meals--only one platter exceeds $8.50--come with soup or salad, both of which do more than fill the time between appetizer and entree. Chicken, egg and lemon bring the avgolemono soup to life. (The Greeks aren't the only group to realize what lemon can do for soup. So do the Mexicans and Thais.) The Greek salad, sprinkled with feta, gets some sparkle from a zesty house dressing. The Greek entrees have real ethnic flair. Keftedes, oversize meatballs, are gastronomically and linguistically related to kafta, a familiar Middle Eastern dish. Olympic Flame's version uses ground beef blended with a fistful of spices, served over rice and moistened with an unusually spicy tomato sauce. A mound of overcooked green beans alongside provides a bit of basic vegetable nutrition.

At $11.95, the garithes (shrimp) plate tops the price list. But Olympic Flame can't be making too much profit from it. That's because you get about ten firm shrimp, doused with a pleasant garlic and white wine sauce. Lamb shish kebab is a straightforward dish, featuring marinated chunks of tender meat.

Probably the smartest entree choice, particularly for novices, is the combo plate, which offers small tastes of four items. The best: outstanding spanakopita, phyllo dough stuffed with spinach and cheese; and moussaka, the eggplant casserole. Plump grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, and pork shish kebab round out the platter.

But beware the gyro, the one Trojan Horse on the menu. It's that odd-textured processed meat that won't remind anyone of the lamb and beef which it purportedly comes from. Olympic Flame serves it at lunchtime on, of all things, a hamburger bun. That pretty much tells me the kitchen has no respect either for the dish or the misguided customers who order it.

The menu also offers some basic Italian dishes. The two I sampled were quite effective. Lasagna reminded me of pastitsio, creamily layered with lots of cheese. You'll notice there's much less sauce than you'd normally get at an Italian pasta parlor. Baked manicotti comes stuffed with ricotta and covered with mozzarella, punched up with a strong-flavored tomato sauce. Don't expect anything as fancy as galaktoboureko or kataifi for dessert. There's rice pudding, and fresh, honey-drenched baklava. I do wish, however, that the Greek coffee had been stronger and sludgier. Of course, comparisons with Greekfest aren't fair, since you'll get out of Olympic Flame for half, maybe less, of what you'll pay there. Whichever you choose, you'll get good Greek food to match your tastes and your budget.

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miles
Greekfast Restaurant

1940 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016

602-265-2990

www.thegreekfest.com


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