Zeus Would Not Be Pleased

The main reason I used to watch Three's Company was the principal character and his occupation: Jack Tripper, chef. Okay. I'll admit I also was a sucker for the show's endless puns, the innuendo and double entendres. But for me Jack was the star. He brought to the job all his character flaws, pratfalls, and comic histrionics, though in the end, his kitchen concoctions always turned out just right. What an inspiration!

One recent evening I was convinced that Jack had found a new position: cooking in the kitchen of Greek House Restaurant, where my companions and I suffered through our own comedy of errors. Except in this case, the result was closer to a Greek tragedy.

Seduced also by the promise of live music and belly dancers, we journeyed west for the prospect of lamb, which Greek cookery highlights so well. We were disappointed on all counts. The belly dancer had called in sick, and the drum kit sitting on a small stage would remain untouched until the following night. As for the lamb, it was so overdone it could have moonlighted as a percussion instrument.

Fortunately for us (but not for Greek House), our meal proved entertaining anyway, thanks largely to my companions who decided to assume the roles of Athena and Zeus. Athena, who draws our thanks for inventing the olive tree (at least according to Greek mythology), provided outspoken assessments of the food and service. Zeus appointed himself guardian of information and began by asking our waitress if there was to be music. When she replied in the negative, he asked her for her name, to which she replied, "Yes, tomorrow night." Naturally Zeus referred to her as "Ms. Tomorrow Night" for the rest of the evening.

And it was a long, long evening. Though two appetizers -- tzatziki (a cucumber-yogurt dip) and spanakopita (spinach pie) -- arrived very, very quickly, the rest of the meal stretched out like a Guinness Book of World Records rubber band. Such speedy delivery, usually a bad omen signifying already-prepared foods, in this instance was accurately portentous. An attempt to order the moussaka without the fattening bechamel sauce met with extreme resistance, which suggested that this particular dish was not made to order. Layered dishes such as lasagna and moussaka (potatoes, eggplant, and ground beef) often require assembly in advance, and I have no objection to saving time. But raw ingredients should be available for that one special request, especially in this age of health consciousness (not everyone enjoys a cholesterol count over 300). For this reason many restaurants add final touches -- a topping of mozzarella, a bechamel, even some spices -- just before the shove into the oven, a technique that also keeps ingredients from merging into an unidentifiable mass.

A third appetizer, Greek-style meatballs, required twenty minutes, time most likely misspent on the char-grill. Unpleasantly crunchy, garnished with wedges of roasted (and half-heartedly spiced) potatoes, these four patties of ground beef bore as much resemblance to meatballs as White Castle hamburgers to prime rib. Indeed in both flavor and shape, they were more reminiscent of Burger King's "Burger Buddies" than the traditional spices and textures of Greek cuisine.

Tzatziki actually demands prep time. A popular mix of thick Greek yogurt, garlic, cucumber, olive oil, and a dash of vinegar, this bread dip must set in order to absorb the flavors properly. Used alternatively as a sauce for gyros and other meat-based plates, chefs blend tzatziki in large batches, the last servings of which are the most potent and therefore the tastiest. (A successful tzatziki should be detectable days later on the breath of the diner.) Greek House's version lacked the tang and zing of vinegar and raw, peeled garlic. Not thinned by olive oil, it jelled on the plate like sour cream. Devoid of authentic chunks of cucumber, it reminded us of tartar sauce to which bits of relish had been added. However, the accompanying pita bread, hot and plentiful and gently dusted with paprika, provided a pleasant base for the bare yogurt, and also made an interesting bun for the burger bites.

The spanakopita, chopped boiled spinach spiked with the occasional nugget of feta cheese, shamed itself with a limp, greasy lid of phyllo dough. The filling was overwhelmed by the bulky, soft top.

An hour elapsed between appetizers and entrees, time that might have been occupied by the Greek salads that were promised with the meal. These, however, simply never materialized, and their absence revealed the theme for the evening: Greek House sadly lacked many supplies, from the specialty Greek wines listed on the menu to the most basic ingredients. Other missing items included a spicy Greek sausage, our first choice instead of the meatballs, and galakto bourico, a sweet dessert drenched in warm honey.

Perhaps the most mysterious missing-in-action dilemma involved Athena's main course. She had ordered a fillet of red snapper cooked slowly with tomatoes and wine. Halfway through the long, hungry wait for our entrees, the waitress announced, "Something has happened to your fish." She wouldn't be specific, which only fueled our already active imaginations. Was Jack Tripper running amok in the kitchen? Did it swim away? Or did the Greek House chef burn it beyond recognition? The last seemed likeliest. Whatever the catastrophe, Athena ended up being served not a fillet but a whole snapper cooked in a completely different manner. Preparation of this dish probably caused the delay in serving our meals, and the wait was hardly worth it. The fish was visibly dry and overdone, as almost everything seemed to be that night.

My main course of imam baldi, a baked half of eggplant stuffed with a meager sprinkle of feta and cooked with onions and tomato sauce, failed as well. Fruity olive oil and nutmeg flavors obscured even the onions. The tomato sauce, which might have lent a pleasant acidic note, had either dried in the oven or had not been added. Side dishes of sauteed broccoli and asparagus with bacon were so saturated with salt they might have crystallized if left to their own devices. Other side-dish options of roasted potatoes, roasted tomatoes, rice pilaf, and stuffed mushrooms (the last carrying enough garlic for the spineless tzatziki), fared almost as badly.

Then came the lamb chops. Suffice it to say the poor animal had been slaughtered twice -- first by the butcher, then by the chef.

We all agreed the giovetsi, a casserole of braised beef and orzo (a small, oval-shaped pasta) in a tomato-and-wine sauce, lent a little promise to the meal. Tender strips of beef generously intertwined with pasta in a flavorful, tangy sauce. If the kitchen, boosted by proper supplies and guidance, could lift its other preparations to the level of the giovetsi, Greek House might stand a chance of developing a loyal clientele. After all, curtains rise as well as fall. Which direction this one goes will depend less on the hips -- and hype -- of the belly dancer than on the quality of the food.


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