Restaurant Reviews

Reading Between the Lines

According to Advertising in America: An Introduction to Persuasive Communication, a textbook I recently unearthed in the piles of disorganized books in my office, "the three kinds of symbols most commonly used to communicate written ideas from person to person" are numbers, words, and pictures. Of the three, words are the least effective. Whereas the typical consumer has no problem identifying the meanings behind numbers and pictures, words are open to interpretation. So the best advertising copy includes as few words as possible. And if words have to be used, the book's author, Dr. Stanley M. Ulanoff, contends, they should be printed in large, bold, or uppercase text, so as to grab the reader's attention.

Maybe that's why I found the advertisement for Dionysos, a month-old Greek restaurant and supper club in Fort Lauderdale, so compelling. One ad, which I found in a daily newspaper, is a textbook example of proper promotion. Many numbers are found in the copy, which is superimposed over a picture of what looks like the Parthenon. Dominating the ad is a marble statue of Dionysus (the American spelling), the Greek god of wine, who looks sternly toward his name, written in headline form.

Of course, whether or not advertising copy is ultimately effective depends on the product itself. After all, no one is going to be a repeat buyer of something that doesn't work. So we decided to test Dionysos against its printed claims, starting with the numbers.

For instance, the ad brags that Dionysos offers "Belly Dancers & 12 Entertainers 'LIVE' from ATHENS," as well as the "only Greek & Jewish entertainment in the state of Florida." I doubt that last assertion, as there are some Greek restaurants in the area where plates are broken on the floor and in some cases over customers' heads (which, I'd say, qualifies as entertainment). We thoroughly enjoyed the "12 Entertainers," all of them in a band featuring at least four singers and playing Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and the occasional Spanish ("La Bamba" with a Mediterranean accent) songs. And, occasionally, a belly dancer did bop around on the dance floor, shaking what must have been 12,000 gold spangles.

The supper club seats parties of up to 400 people in the low-ceilinged but spacious restaurant, which features polished wood floors, upholstered chairs, and banquettes lining the mirrored walls. I briefly considered rounding up 399 guests but initially settled on a group of a dozen or so and, following the boldface instructions at the bottom of the ad, called for a reservation. I then called back twice to change the number as the group grew. Friends, who thought the place sounded like fun, kept inviting other friends, so we eventually wound up with a party of 18.

The host told me over the phone that the restaurant "specializes in large parties," so I was curious to see how the staff would handle us. The staff members were not only kind and friendly, they were patient -- a necessity when dealing with a never-ending stream of people who can't decide what they want to eat or even when they want to order. The hosts and server were remarkably levelheaded, simply adding tables to accommodate our ever-growing number and refilling water and wine continuously.

Unfortunately the starters were almost as cool as our hosts. The easiest way to feed all of us was initially to order the "appetizer variety for four" (times three), a combination of about ten Greek specialties garnished with lemon wedges and kalamata olives and served with lovely toasted pita bread on the side. Foods that were supposed to be served hot were room-temperature, which brought the tender rings of lightly fried squid down a level or two and made the smelts, whole fried fish, seem fishier. Nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for the rich spinach pie, but charbroiled octopus, which was burned, was disappointing. Later a main course of octopus broiled with garlic sauce proved much better.

Otherwise, the flavors of the grilled Greek sausage and the keftedes, or meatballs, were unharmed by the lukewarm temperature. Several of the appetizers actually benefited. Tzatziki, for example, was delicious, the thick yogurt-cucumber dip enhanced by being free of a refrigerated chill. Same went for taramasalata, a salty caviar spread I particularly liked. And dolmades, or grape leaves, were a treat, the rice stuffing delightfully lemony but not tart.

The images in both the newspaper ad and on the menu are difficult to misread: Dionysus is seen in a variety of poses, surrounded by grapevines. Also known as Bacchus, Dionysus is, according to the menu, the "Greek god of wine and altered states." Supposedly these altered states were brought on by religious ecstasy, because drinking the fermented juice of grapes was a part of ritual worship. These days wine is a necessity for an upscale establishment, particularly if a restaurant calls itself Dionysos. That's why I can't understand the limited wine list. I'm actually grateful that the restaurant offers only a few Greek vintages (three whites and five reds) because, let's face it, Greek table wine isn't very good. But because its namesake is the god of wine, I suggest the restaurant add a handsome supply of international wines to its list, offering a variety of prices to supplement the Greek bottles, most of which go for $25 each.

As far as the ad's text goes, there's one phrase (all of it rendered in capital letters) that misleads, bearing out Dr. Ulanoff's theory. Dionysos does indeed have a "large menu offering complete dinners," but the tag line, "fine Greek cuisine," is slightly incorrect. The entrees are actually home-style, and they're the biggest draw at the restaurant. Belly-filling, heartwarming casseroles such as moussaka -- layers of eggplant, potatoes, and beef -- and pastitsio -- consisting of macaroni and beef -- were topped by an excellent, lumpless bechamel sauce. Chicken souvlaki, which is more of a street food than fine-dining fare, was also superb, the seasoned and grilled chicken breast exuding juice on toasted pita bread and partnered by a crisp Greek salad.

Roast leg of lamb was as soft as flannel, covered by an aromatic brown gravy and accompanied by roasted potatoes and green beans sauteed with tomatoes. And villagers' shrimp, a pasta dish, showcased ten jumbo shrimp sauteed with peppers and onions and sprinkled with feta cheese.

We had just a few complaints. Some of the shrimp were undercooked, and a rank entree of charbroiled red snapper was definitely not fresh. And for dessert galakto bouriko, a pastry filled with custard and covered with honey, was actually rubbery, like petrified flan.

The bar didn't disappoint, however. It supplied our party with shots of ouzo, which in turn inspired us to try some Greek dance steps. After all, for many people, Dionysus, or Bacchus, connotes hedonism. And though not every dish is as successful as the ad that first drew me to the place, after dining, drinking, and dancing the night away at this promising new restaurant, I was convinced that even the most backward communications major would get the picture.

Dionysos. 3485 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale, 954-566-4377. Dinner nightly from 5 p.m. till 2 a.m.

Appetizer variety for four



Roast leg of lamb

Galakto bouriko

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick