Cafe Reviews

In the Niko's Time

Niko's is an upbeat, upscale entree into the Valley's Greek dining scene. Expect glitz. Expect glamour. Expect high prices, high quality and high fun. Just don't expect stunning Greek cuisine. This restaurant is more about atmosphere than authenticity, and its patrons don't seem to care. The place is packed.

Niko's opened this spring in a former bank building. If the owners had anticipated the crowds that would come, they would have kept the vault during the renovation, to store the cash this place must be raking in.

Tucked in an obscure corner between Goldie's Sports Bar and a fitness club in Scottsdale Ranch, Niko's has become a stamping ground for wealthy Greeks and connoisseurs of the cuisine, our black-garbed waiter boasts. When the belly dancer begins her act, customers swarm the dance floor, throwing dollar bills in the traditional Greek custom of showing how love of life -- not money -- matters most. We're skeptical. Scottsdalians are hardly known for chucking cash at random, and it's doubtful that die-hard Mediterraneans would be lured in to pay upward of $30 for dishes that, while satisfying, lack the spark of vibrant herbs and spicing that so marks the food of this region. In the end, it turns out we're both right. While I'm still doubtful that true lovers of Greek cuisine call Niko's home, partiers here are happy to throw money both at the stage, and at the dinner bill.

Niko's has split personalities. The sprawling eatery is divided into three distinct rooms, each catering to a specific clientele. The central room is for quiet diners, resplendent in sophisticated deep-blue walls and ceilings, a full wall of fountains emerging from ornate gold caps the size and shape of manhole covers, carved columns, blue- and terra-cotta-hued tile floors, and floor-to-ceiling swags of blue and tan fabric. Here is where guests come for white-tablecloth presentation, comfy booths or sleek wooden chairs, and suave service. Here's where they come to focus on the food.

Another room is an all-out salute to Moroccan opulence, rich with leopard skin rugs, maroon walls, intricately adorned mirrors and lamps, and fabrics fluttering from a coal-black ceiling. Here is where guests come to cut loose at tables covered with crimson cloths, sip a martini at the elegant, back-lit bar, joke with the more-relaxed servers, watch the belly dancer, listen to live music and, yes, toss greenbacks into the air.

Forget about the third room. It looks as if it's been decorated with closeouts from a failed Chinese restaurant. It's always empty, probably a private party space. The best time to be had is in the belly dancer-music room, where the failings of the food evaporate under the excitement of the atmosphere.

Not that the failings are too great. But it's clear we're paying more for surroundings than dedicated recipes. And often the kitchen forgets its focus, running wild with cuisines from regions so far removed from Greece that we might as well be at an international bazaar. Why would we want to order tempura, one night's appetizer special? Or chicken wings, fettuccine Alfredo and Cajun swordfish? How about a patty melt or a Reuben? Other American dishes seem tossed into the mix to keep the white-bread clientele coming.

"I thought Greek food was supposed to be exciting," wonders my dinner companion, tasting a bite of his filet mignon. "This is just steak."

It's true. The meat, as with many Niko's dishes, has little trace of Greek energy: the barest measure of olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, rosemary, basil, parsley, mint or dill. And for an eye-popping price of $29.95 for 10 ounces à la carte, this should be the best beef in the universe. Although the meat has probably never seen the inside of a freezer, the mushroom-capped cow doesn't rise above average. A side of asparagus is a rip-off at $3.95, with its woody, thick spears.

A few of the appetizer specialties are remarkable. For an addictive dip, hummus is luscious with garbanzo beans mashed to a creamy paste and blended with tahini (thick sesame seed paste), lemon and garlic. The saganaki is spectacular, too, all tangy kasseri and kefalotiri cheeses baked in olive oil and flambéed with brandy. We dig deeply into the stunning square, relishing sharp, bright flavors and sides of excellent, crisp-grilled pita triangles.

Even as our waiter shouts "opa" upon lighting our saganaki afire, little could distract us from the taramosalata, which is a beguiling purée of red caviar and potato. We spread it on ruby-red tomato slices, tuck it atop a pita, lick the very last bit from the tines of our forks. Sujuk, too, is sensational. A chef's specialty, it brings gloriously moist rounds of homemade beef sausage sautéed with garlic and lemon and paired with grilled cherry tomatoes. There's flavor to spare, alternating stabs of chorizo-like meat with tart tomato.

Another chef's specialty, eggplant salad, is worthy of its crown, featuring grilled eggplant chunks, chopped tomatoes, onion, parsley, green peppers and garlic. Gutsy, no, but an immensely satisfying juicy casserole eaten alone or tucked in a pita. Fattoush, too, is mighty fine, presenting a plateful of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, Kalamata olives, parsley, a bit of romaine and thin chips of toasted Lebanese bread. Character comes from a gloss of lemon, olive oil and zaater herb.

The restaurant's best offering is its vegetarian combination, a pretty arrangement of flaky spinach triangles, falafel and grape leaves. The falafel is perfect, three circles of crisply fried ground chickpeas, fava beans, parsley, onion and herbs. The grape leaves take charge, the nicely bitter wrappings stuffed with rice, parsley, tomatoes, onions, green pepper, lemon and olive oil. On the side: rice, lovely fresh tomato slices, thin cucumber yogurt sauce and zingy tahini.

That's the end of the spice show, unfortunately. From there, seasonings disappear and dishes slip into simple everyday beef, chicken, lamb and shrimp. There's no spirit in the lamb with hummus, for example. The chunks of meat are competently cooked but lifeless with a cautious application of pine nuts, sautéed onions and olive oil. Chicken kabob is generous but tastes of nothing more than poultry skewered with grilled carrots and green peppers. And the chunks of onions and tomatoes manage to outshine the mild-mannered lamb kebob.

Kafta kabob hints at what the kitchen is capable of, though, with a pleasing blend of ground beef, onion and parsley. And the chef doesn't hold back with chicken gallaba, pieces of breast mixed with thick strips of green and red peppers and mushrooms in a vibrantly spicy tomato sauce.

Moussaka is positively dull. A thick slab looks appealing with its thick layers of potato nesting with eggplant and zucchini. Yet the only discernable flavor is of mozzarella, watery tomato sauce and no nuance of béchamel. Lentil soup limps in with aggressive spinach bitterness. And there's little of interest in stuffed cabbage leaves, eight soft bundles cuddled around sleepy rice and ground beef.

Even so, settled in the bar, the less- successful dishes are easy to forgive because of the skill of the gold-bedecked belly dancer, the live band and a singer who croons in five languages. This dancer knows her stuff, whirling like a jeweled dervish, flashing a sword that she balances on her stomach and head, pulling folks out of the crowd. She's rewarded richly, fistfuls of dollars stuffed in her waistline.

Niko's needs to loosen up and infuse as much spirit into all of its food as it does in its atmosphere. A stronger hand with the spices and this Greek could be a contender.