Greek restaurants in the United States fall into one of two categories. They're either mediocre little joints where you can scarf down poor-quality souvlaki and tzatziki at bargain-basement prices, or they're high-scale eateries that charge ridiculously pretentious amounts for equally basic fare. At the cheap little tavernas, you're usually subjected to ouzo-swigging and plate-smashing; the tony spots expose diners to cultural condescension: wailing musicians and pine-sappy retsina so sharp you have to down it in one shot rather than sip it. Neither satisfies those of us who've visited the Greek islands, where we've found sophisticated restaurants offering economical prices, where the food and drink are quality entertainmentenough.
Enter Aegean Isles, a month-old Greek restaurant on East Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton. The large, airy, elegant dining room is outfitted with blue-and-white linen tablecloths, a pale tile floor, and framed posters featuring the more remote Greek islands. The restaurant's name isn't particularly inventive, the color scheme might be a trifle predictable, and the music is canned, but you get the feeling from owner/managing partner Nick Tsiavos (his silent partner is Nick Kotsakis) that he's in the business for the joy of it, not simply to cash in on an Americantrend.
Tsiavos has been in the hospitality industry for 50 years, in both the U.S. and Greece, where he grew up in the northwest part of the country near the Albanian border. His experience shows. At Aegean Isles no one tries to smack you on the head with a cheap ceramic plate or educate you about Greek culture by needlessly explaining menu items. Instead, the restaurateur assumes that his clientele already knows what Greek food and tradition are all about, and treats you accordingly -- with welcoming deference and delight in your presence.
Tsiavos coaches his wait staff, but he also serves much of the tasty fare himself. He gave my daughter a cup of mild avgolemono soup -- traditional chicken soup with orzo and lemon -- on the house, as if to apologize for not having highchairs. (He told us they will be available in the future.) For the adults he set down a complimentary dish of taramasalata, a lovely spread comprising red caviar, potatoes, onions, and olive oil. Tsiavos was also responsible for the perfect flaming of our saganaki appetizer. It shouldn't be difficult to make this starter, which is a block of kefalograviera cheese that is fried with butter and dry white wine, then doused with brandy and lemon juice and set on fire in front of the diner. But before visiting Aegean Isles, I hadn't had a decent saganaki in years. Both crisp and meltingly soft, the cheese was neither burnt nor reeking of alcoholicfumes.
At first glance the menu doesn't appear inventive. Starters are predictably traditional: grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb, veal, and rice; grilled Greek sausage; tzatziki. What sets them apart are their impeccable quality. The grape leaves were supple and moist, laced with an egg-lemon sauce, and the sausage, which Tsiavos purchases from a Greek purveyor, had been skewered and seasoned with orange zest to give it a fragrant lift. The tzatziki, probably one of the most familiar appetizers, was exceptionally well balanced, the thick yogurt containing just the right amounts of sharp garlic and soothing cucumber.
Still, Aegean Isles does offer some more-interesting dishes. In addition to the feta cheese salads, which are prepared in both Greek (without lettuce) and American (with lettuce) styles, the restaurant offers pashaliatiki. This salad, which symbolizes new life, is typically served at Easter, and it contains shredded romaine, fennel, and green onions. After Tsiavos tossed it at the table with aromatic olive oil and some balsamic vinegar, the salad had the effect of a floral centerpiece: It brightened the table and refreshed our palates simultaneously.
Aegean Isles isn't cheap; entrées such as lamb chops, veal chops, and lobster tails filled with feta cheese cost as much as $23 each. But you can land a bargain by ordering combination plates. For instance, the "ambrosia platter" was an efficient way to sample the lamb chops, quail, and shrimp, all of which had been marinated in fresh thyme and charbroiled. The lamb chops were the best of the bunch, delicately fleshed and lightly musky. The quail, however, had been left too long on the grill, demonstrating the char in charbroiled; and the shrimp, while big enough, tasted a bit like iodine. In contrast, swordfish souvlaki, chunks of the meaty fish broiled on skewers, were fresh andjuicy.
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Like the ambrosia platter, the pikilia dinner was served with buttered white rice, grilled potatoes, and a broiled tomato half. But the pikilia took the blue-ribbon prize with its combination of roasted veal and roasted lamb. The assorted goodies also included stuffed grape leaves, a terrific moussaka -- a casserole of potatoes, eggplant, ground lamb, and veal -- and fluffy béchamel topping everything.
If you're looking for something a little bit different but don't want to go as far as veal sweetbreads sautéed in white wine and capers, check out the house specialties. From this list we chose the delightfully filling bekri meze, a hearty, country-style dish utilizing chunks of both filet mignon and strip sirloin. The meat had been simmered with loukanika bacon and red wine, then finished with a handful of herbs and pungent kefalotiricheese.
Aegean Isles has a short but authentic all-Greek wine list, which includes varieties of retsina and chardonnay. While the eatery doesn't have a list of wines-by-the-glass, the management will pour a glass of whatever's open, and even the retsina was better than the stuff I've had at other Greek restaurants. For dessert we wound up with a richer-than-average galaktobouriko, a thick layer of custard surrounded by buttery, flaky phyllo.
I admit I have a fondness for many things Greek for personal reasons: My husband proposed to me on the island of Páros, and my daughter's name, Zoe, is Greek for "life." Frankly, I often dine on lousy souvlaki for nostalgia's sake. But the friendliness and sincerity at Aegean Isles gives me another, more legitimately culinary, excuse for goingGreek.