As a big girl, I could have used one of those scenery magicians to doctor the view at Culinaros, a year-old Greek restaurant situated just off Powerline Road in the Wharfside Shopping Center in Boca Raton. With a few flicks of the wrist, he or she could have put more stars in the sky, some of them shooting, just like in Greece. A few swoops could have made distant mountains emerge just beyond the man-made lake. Then traffic-heavy Powerline could have been wiped out of the picture as easily as a table is swept free of crumbs. Culinaros, an authentic Greek establishment, deserves an authentic setting.
When I visited Greece, I was surprised to learn that each island has its own specialties and that the cuisine varies according to region. You can snack on spanakopita (spinach pie) and smack your lips over moussaka (meat-and-eggplant casserole topped with bechamel sauce) on Paros, but you won't find either on Thira, which features souvlaki (skewered meats) and tangy tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt dip). But universal in most Greek restaurants, no matter where they're located, is one of these two traits: The food is either displayed in baskets or glass cases up front, or patrons are invited into the kitchen to choose the most appetizing-looking of dishes.
Culinaros goes with the first option. Chef-proprietor Giorgio Vogiatzis displays the daily catch, purchased from local fish markets, in a deli case in the restaurant's foyer. Unless you're squeamish this is a terrific way to tell if the swordfish or salmon is fresh. With one look at the case, I decided right then to have fish for dinner, and I wasn't disappointed. Snapper al Provence was magnificently prepared: The meaty half of a large fish had been skinned and deboned, then sauced with artichokes, capers, and a breathtaking amount of garlic. Liberal doses of olive oil and lemon flavored both the sweet hunks of fish and the oven-roasted, quartered red potatoes served alongside.
A visit to Culinaros demands a hearty appetite, because the entrees are huge platefuls of food, accompanied, the night we visited, by a plethora of potatoes, a heap of leaf spinach sauteed with garlic, and a melon wedge. More than a match for any appetite were three tender, double-bone lamb chops, which were appropriately musky, holding their own against a powerful sprinkling of rosemary and oregano. Shrimp Culinaros was an even greater challenge, with eight large Key West crustaceans curled over an enormous portobello mushroom cap. Although roasted, the shrimp were still succulent, and a garlic scampi sauce mixed pleasantly with the juices from the portobello mushroom.
Main courses include soup or salad. The house salad was a pleasant arrangement of chopped romaine lettuce and red cabbage, chunks of cucumber, sliced red onions, beefsteak tomato wedges, and a robust balsamic vinaigrette. For an extra dollar, just any old salad becomes a Greek salad, complete with crumbled feta cheese, kalamata olives, peperoncini, anchovies, and grape leaves stuffed with olive oil-saturated rice. Traditional Greek salads don't contain lettuce, because it's rare in Greece, but this salad appeals to the American palate.
Soup was a vibrant bean concoction the evening we visited. We asked our server what kind of bean soup it was, but he just shrugged and said: "Dunno. They look red to me." Well, the broth was red, a savory vegetable stock. But the beans were white, perfectly cooked, pliable members of the navy bean family. As seems to be the case in many restaurants in this area, service was prompt, at times charming, and relatively clueless when it came to discussing the cuisine.
To a purist some of the entrees, including veal schnitzel, broccoli over linguine, and pork chop Dijon, don't sound Greek. Vogiatzis has owned Mediterranean restaurants in Greece, Italy, and Munich, and his influences are reflected on the menu. But appetizers will satisfy any connoisseur. Three dips -- tzatziki, hummus, and eggplant -- were served with homemade, grilled pita bread. The bland tzatziki could have used a dash or two of vinegar, but the coarse hummus was flecked with enough garlic to knock over a vampire. The pureed eggplant was a smoky treat.
Two delightful starters, a grilled portobello mushroom cap served over salad and a pair of roasted red peppers stuffed with feta cheese, were both doused with the balsamic vinaigrette. They were also sprinkled with chopped garlic, a seemingly ubiquitous ingredient at Culinaros. Spinach pie, in fact, was the only food item not accented by the strong, aromatic cloves. Tasty enough on their own, but a little greasy, the two excessively browned wedges of phyllo dough were filled with minced spinach and feta cheese.
Together, the four appetizers are available as a platter for two to four people at $14.95 -- a bargain considering the pile of food you receive. Complementary bruschetta, made with Greek country bread (slightly stale, we thought), vine-ripe tomatoes, oregano, and olive oil, was a hearty starter in its own right.
Desserts were definitely not Greek, but they should be. The choice of cheesecake or German chocolate cake may speak to Vogiatzis' Continental experiences, but we longed for a soothing galacto bouriko (pastry with custard and honey) to counter the garlic. If he ever does revise his dessert list, Vogiatzis might want someone to correct the many spelling errors on his menu. I don't expect the Greek-born owner to have perfect command of the English language, but a good consultant would ax mistakes like "the hole half" of a fish or the "bigest Greek salad." Even "chef Georgio's" name is spelled incorrectly.
As it stands, however, the fare at Culinaros doesn't need that much fiddling. Nor does the 140-seat, dimly-lit dining room, where the rose-hued, textured walls are hung with cream-colored frescoes. The 80-seat deck, overlooking the nearby lake, doesn't have as much atmosphere, but a good pretender can make it fit the Mediterranean bill. Another patron certainly thought it would do. "If I do a Greek dance for you, will you throw money at me?" he asked us as he passed by our table on the way to his own.
"No," we replied, "but we just might hit you over the head with a plate." In Greece, plate-smashing is a ritual, usually accompanied by a healthy amount of ouzo-drinking and heel-kicking. At Culinaros, plate-cleaning is much more appropriate.
Culinaros. 6897 SW 18th St., Boca Raton, 561-338-3646. Open nightly from 4 to 11 p.m.
Roasted red peppers
Snapper al Provence