Most every year at this time I venture up to Chicago to attend the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Show. For people in the food business, it is the show of all shows. All four floors of the monstrous McCormick Place Convention Center are filled with the latest in food equipment, products, literature, gimmicks, etc. Besides going to the show, one of the things that I most look forward to while in Chicago is eating in one of the many restaurants in Greektown. New Orleans doesn’t have a Greektown, but it does have some very fine Greek restaurants to choose from. Since I didn’t attend the show this year, I decided to visit a few of our local restaurants to satisfy my spring craving for Greek food.
As with most cultures, food plays a significant role in Greek heritage and tradition. The Greek Festival, held each spring at the Hellenic Cultural Center, supports this claim. And like many cultures, the Greeks have retained the best from the various influences over the years. While many Americans associate Greek cuisine with lamb and more lamb, New Orleanians should appreciate the presence of seafood on the menus of the local restaurants. Cheese is also used generously in many dishes, both as a primary ingredient and as a garnish. And Greek cheese is not just limited to feta. If you don’t believe me, give either Kefalotyri or Kasseri a try. A sauce that some may be familiar with, which is served with several dishes, is Tzatziki, a yogurt and cucumber sauce flavored with garlic, mint and dill. Another ingredient that is essential to Greek cooking is phyllo (or filo) dough. Phyllo is a light, flaky crust that is used in many recipes, but is perhaps best known in America as a prominent ingredient in Baklava. It is also used for many of the small pies, including spinach and feta. New Orleans Greek restaurants blend the exotic with the familiar to achieve flavors that can’t be beat.
One of our favorite restaurants is the Little Greek Restaurant at 2051 Metairie Road in Metairie. It is, in fact, little, so be sure to make reservations or you may have a hard time getting a table. Unlike some other restaurants in the area that combine Greek cuisine with other Mediterranean cuisines, this restaurant is pure Greek. Whether we go for lunch or dinner, the first thing we order upon sitting down are their Dolmades—grape leaves stuffed with rice, lightly seasoned and served with lemon. I have been turned off by many Dolmades because they can be saturated in oil, but not these. Just enough oil and lemon and served hot as they should be. What a way to start a meal! The Little Greek offers a variety of traditional Greek appetizers, so don’t limit yourself to the Dolmades. Other appetizers include Tyrotrigona (feta in phyllo dough), Spanikopita (spinach and feta in phyllo), and Saganaki (cheese flamed at your table). We can vouch for all of these. But the best way to sample them all at a single sitting is to order the combination appetizer plate. It’s both inexpensive and generous, and includes six different items. It’s definitely the way to go if you have trouble deciding on a starter.
Unfortunately, we can also vouch for most of the entrees—all that we have tried anyway. Needless to say, we tend to eat too much here—all of the portions are quite big. Especially recommended are the Moussaka (layered eggplant, potatoes and ground beef), Pastitsio (macaroni and ground beef) and any of the Souvlakia (marinated and grilled meats and fish with fresh vegetable). Overall, the menu offers a great selection of admirable dishes at reasonable prices. In addition, there are usually a few specials from which to choose. Of the specials, we especially liked the Eggplant Stuffed with Seafood. They also occasionally mix and match entrees and offer them as specials. Recently they offered their Greek Stuffed Baked Potato and Meatballs. Served with a side of tzatziki, this was a tasty dish.
You like dessert? Even though they aren’t listed on the menu, this restaurant has them. Their Baklava is among the best we have had—sweet, firm and lots of nuts. For the uninitiated, Baklava is a world classic—flaky phyllo dough with nuts and honey. Theirs have plenty of cinnamon too. Have it with a cup of their special Greek coffee to finish off the meal. We always enjoy our visits here. The food is always consistent and the service cordial. The Little Greek is moderately priced. Lunch for two with drinks, tip and tax should cost around $30.00.
A couple of restaurants serving good inexpensive Greek food are the two Mr. Gyro restaurants. These restaurants are related in that they were once owned by the same person. They are now operated as franchised restaurants, managed by different parties but offering the same menu. We first visited Mr. Gyro’s at 819 Decatur Street in the French Quarter. Another little restaurant, the tables here are very few. You get a good view of the street from most of the tables though, which adds to the experience.
We started with the Dolmades and the Saganaki. The Saganaki was the clear winner here. If you’ve never had this item, it is a must—a large triangle of fried cheese that is brought to the table, doused with ouzo, and flamed. Opa! Impressive and tasty, it was almost too much for two people. They too have the combination appetizer plate that mostly consists of cold items—hummus, olives, feta cheese and Dolmades. Other interesting appetizers include Marinated Octopus and Greek-style caviar. For entrees, we tried the old standby, the gyro sandwich, which is pita bread stuffed with sliced meat, lettuce, tomato, and tzatziki. The meat is a combination of beef and lamb, and is served hot and tender. Better than a burger and it even comes with fries. We definitely recommend it along with the Moussaka, which is the best that we had on our tour. The potatoes were crispy, nothing was overcooked and the nutmeg flavor came through as it should.
For dessert try the Baklava, as always. Mr. Gyro’s also offers Kataifi, which is a variation on Baklava made with shredded wheat instead of phyllo.
The Metairie Mr. Gyro’s is located at 3620 N. Causeway Boulevard at the corner of West Esplanade. Even though this restaurant offers the same menu, it has its own personality. Perhaps because it isn’t located in the Quarter, it seems to be a little more relaxed than its counterpart. Here also you may order off of either the dinner menu or the lunch menu at any time, so gyro sandwich fans won’t be disappointed. What an idea the combo platter is! When in doubt, order the combo, which we did. This time we opted for the combination dinner plate, the most expensive item on the menu ($14.75) but plenty for two. It consisted of Spinach Pie, Feta Pie, Marinated Lamb, Moussaka, Pastitsio, and gyro meat and pita. The essential tzatziki is served on the side along with some feta, olives and Dolmades. It is truly a selective combination. As with all their dinners, it also came with a choice of soup or salad! Both Mr. Gyro’s also offer quite a bit of seafood—Shrimp Olympia, Red Snapper, fresh Fried Calamari, and, of course, a combination seafood platter. Get there early for lunch as it seems to be a very popular noon-time stop. Lunch for two will cost about $25.00 at either restaurant.
The last restaurant that we visited is the Casablanca Restaurant at 1501 Metairie Road in Metairie. The Casablanca offers a combination of both Greek and Moroccan cuisine, and does very well at both. The menu in fact almost evenly distributes the Moroccan and Greek items. The atmosphere here suggests upscale, but the menu prices do not reflect this, as the prices are similar to the other restaurants reviewed. Lunch here was a real treat. Taking the combination concept one step further, they actually have ten different appetizers and two combination plates. Combo number one allows you to sample the first five appetizers, and combo number two includes each of the second five items. Order one of each and you can try every appetizer. A great idea (they do the same thing at dinner with their entrees). Again, you are able to try such appetizers as the spinach and feta triangles, Baba Ganoush (eggplant dip), Borecas (cheese pie), and Dolmades. The Dolmades were again the winner here, with the grape leaves being stuffed with quite a bit of ground meat and a predominant mint flavor.
Lunch items are very reasonably priced, nothing being more than $7.50. We opted for the Moussaka and one of the Moroccan items—Tanzia Fassi (lamb baked with dried fruit, nuts and spices). Both were excellent, and the service we received was very congenial. Also recommended are the gyro sandwiches (excellent) and the Souvlaki. Lunch for two will cost about $30.00.
If you enjoy yourself at lunch, which I am sure that you will, consider going back for dinner. Their dinner menu offers a greater selection, and on Fridays and Saturdays there is belly dancing in the dining room. Believe me, this places comes alive at night.
What do you wash all of this food down with? Greek beer, of course. Spartan is one of the few Greek beers imported into this country, and it goes fine with the food. Very light and pleasant, it won’t overpower any of the subtle flavors of the food. All of these restaurants have at least one Greek beer available.
The more time I spend in Chicago, and in the restaurants just described, the greater appreciation I develop for the food. It’s moving up on my list of favorite cuisines.