Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Fall of Athens: My First Review

Socrates (pronounced So-krates), the great Greek, said something about "the unexamined life" not being worth living. I believe the same holds true for the unexamined moussaka. If a Greek life is worth examining, let us also take a thoroughly circumspect look at one mistake in the truly fickle world of Greek food.

Possibly the most underappreciated and least known among the major international cuisines, Greek cuisine yields some of the most colorful and tempting combinations of texture, smell, and, of course, flavor. When it's done correctly. Unfortunately, while most Americans have no trouble at all pointing out an anemic enchilada or a mediocre moo goo gai pan, it is a much more formidable task to take down a turbid tzatziki or recognize a so-so spanikopita. It is much easier to produce Greek food that is passable but not perfect due to the almost mystical nature of the cuisine in most of Americana.

On a recent trip to Taki's "Greco-Roman" restaurant in Leesburg, Florida, it became apparent why Leesburg isn't on the Top Ten list of world culinary capitals and why Floridians so often choose the Chili's or Red Lobsters that dot the highways when it comes to dining choices.

Upon entering Taki's, the sounds of the well-known Greek musicians Nelly Furtado and Timberland greeted us with a hearty and welcoming "promiscuous boy/let's get to the point." It probably couldn't get any worse. And then it did. Our meal was narrated by Casey Casem counting down America's Top Forty, which somehow included "Unbreak My Heart" by Toni Braxton, several BeeGee's songs (appropriately enough, "Tragedy") and of course, the ubiquitous soon-to-be one-hit-wonder Daniel Powter. I was jonesing for some Yanni, regardless of Barry Gibb's striking resemblance to the same.

Other than the music, the typical and unimaginative decor, which I'm sure was purchased as a package from Greek Restaurant Decor Depot, added little charm to the space. I looked around disinterestedly at the false window cut-outs in the drywall, made to resemble an airy, sunshiney villa on the turquoise Aegean. My culturally-astute dining partner (read: My mom) earnestly wondered aloud why Greek people have such a strong prolivity towards limestone statuary. Easily, this was the highlight of the evening.

We were introduced to our dinner by no cordial means. My selection of the Greek Combination Plate #2 consisted of a slab of flavorless, greasy spanikopita, several phyllo dough triangles filled with goat cheese, a skewer of pork souvlaki, and a square of slightly congealed moussaka (flippantly referred to as "Greek lasagna" for us dumb Americans). Everything needed salt, first of all. Such an elementary flavor miscalculation meant only one thing. I called to our punk-rock princess of a server (who, incidentally, had VERY cute hair) and asked her about the abominable spanikopita and equally-as-offensive "triangle thingies" (I clearly astonished her with my distinguished command of culinary argot). Further investigation and rather probing questions revealed what I had suspected: both were delivered frozen and subsequently reheated for service. I was, rather smugly, told that if our server had been a kitchen staff, she would probably have been upset, but since she had "nothing to do with whatever happens in the kitchen" she couldn't be emotionally involved with the food. This kind of disconnect jarred me, and was the greatest downfall of what otherwise would have been a passable meal. Knowing that the staff did not stand behind the food made everything just a little more disappointing - and worthy of a blog review.

I do have one significant point of praise, however. The souvlaki (marinated pork tenderloin skewered and grilled) was fantastic. The skewer dripped with juices and packed quite a punch of flavor. Bravo. Serve a couple of pieces of that delectable pig with some of the housemade tzatziki (a sour cream and cucumber sauce that lacked a significant amount of garlicky glory, but was nonetheless very good), some warm pita slices, and a few tomatoes. I tremble.

I failed to mention my mother's meal of "baked spaghetti Parmagiano with mushrooms" simply because it was not worth mentioning until now. Noodles overdone to the point of mushiness, slathered with a tablespoon of red sauce, lightly broiled bagged pre-shredded mozzarella (which added more of fat than of flavor), and sprinkled auspiciously with canned mushrooms just didn't merit any explanation other than the explanation I just gave. It definitely doesn't deserve further criticism.

I do not believe I will return to Taki's, regardless of the longevity of the establishment. If anything, the fact that Taki's has stood unchallenged in Leesburg for 20 egregious years is only evidence of my prior postulation: Americans just don't know Greek food. Instead of spending the money and going to Taki's, save a few more dollars and go to Chicago. Eat at Kosta's on Halsted in Greektown and experience true Pelopennesian perfection. Socrates will be proud.

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