The old Greek bottle-dancer will need to muster all his nimble magic to rouse this building to life, given its long history as one of South Jersey's more forgettable diners.
But would it even be possible to transform the former Cherry Tree Diner, a stucco Denny's look-alike, into a Greek fish palace along the lines of what you might stumble into on the Ionian isle of Lefkas? Across the street from the monstrously generic mega-burb strip mall that has replaced the Garden State Park racetrack?
Athanasios Konidaris thinks so. And after a few pleasant meals at Onasis, the Cherry Tree's completely renovated incarnation, I'm not entirely disinclined to believe him.
Granted, it has been a few years since Konidaris, also known as "Tom," 64 and Lefkas-born, has done his acrobatic folk dance, in which he says he strutted around the floor atop a circle of 30 standing wine bottles to stoke his crowd into a frenzy of "Opa!" cheers and flying dollar bills before presenting them with bechamel-topped casseroles of moussaka.
But this restaurant's purist ode to Greek seafood might alone be enough to give Onasis a chance. Just to observe Konidaris at work in his new kitchen, the diminutive, silver-haired dynamo suspending baskets of imported whole fish over the wood-scented grill from a steel racking contraption of his own devising, is to know the man has plenty of energy left.
He has more experience than most, having owned restaurants in Philadelphia since 1969, including two previous versions of Onasis in Center City during the '70s and early '80s, and eventually opening Cafe Zesty, the Greek-Italian bistro in Manayunk, which he still owns. Konidaris also co-owns the Manayunk Diner with Eric Papougenis, a former customer and folk-dancing cohort, who is now the charming maitre d' and co-owner at Onasis' front door, giving customers guided tours of the restaurant's inspiring display of whole fish, a bank of ice that practically leaps with schools of spiny-finned little red barbouni, snub-nosed royal dorados, and silvery-pink, snapperlike pageots.
These regal fish, mostly imported from Greece, are the main reason to visit Onasis, and Konidaris cooks them beautifully, carefully roasting them on the self-built rack that gives the fish just enough distance from the grill's hot flames. Deboned for presentation and butterflied beneath a glaze of lemony olive oil and scattered capers, these are some of the most spectacular whole fish I've eaten around Philadelphia. The jittery waitstaff has a tendency to push the loup de mer, the flaky and mild Mediterranean bass also known as branzino. But you can get those anywhere these days. I much prefer the firmer, ivory-fleshed consistency of the snapperlike pageots, sargos, lithrinis and fagris, which were so meaty and fresh, you could almost taste the sea.
Yes, these fish can be expensive - $18 to $26 a pound - but the large ones, from 1.6 to 2-plus pounds, easily feed two. And you're paying for real quality and a rare selection of special fish. It's a proposition that seems to work comfortably at Estia, the estiatorion beside the Academy of Music that is the region's most elegant Greek fish palace. Whether it can work in Cherry Hill is an open question. This is more of a Cheesecake Factory kind of crossroads, a nexus of big-box stores and chain-restaurant feed halls, where a lack of beeper-toting customers waiting hours to be seated for glorified chicken fingers can only be looked upon with suspicion.
What is something genuine doing here? The beeper hordes must wonder.
Konidaris and Papougenis are doing their best to swim against the tide, but it isn't easy. There is a large Greek church nearby, St. Thomas, that fills the back dining room with occasional church-lady banquets. Otherwise, the tables have been sparsely occupied during my visits.
It's not an unappealing room. The frumpy old diner has been tastefully brightened to a crisp Hellenic white with cerulean blue accents. The inside is fitted with blond birchwood floors, fish tanks beside the open kitchen, and wrought-iron gates that open through arches onto a rear dining room filled with paintings evoking rustic scenes of the sunny Greek isles.
There is still a big pastry case filled with myriad cheesecakes, chocolate-berry mousses and baklavas that preserves some physical reminder of the space's diner past. But it's the service more than anything that holds Onasis back. The servers are so earnestly friendly they are awkward, and they equate the quest for raw speed with fine service. Our first waiter was so manically rushed, his forehead glistened with sweat by midmeal as he huffed plate after plate to the table whether we were ready for it or not. Our second waitress was calmer, but just as clueless when it came to pacing the meal.
What came to the table, however, was mostly a delight. I might quibble with some of the classic taverna fare that fills out much of the menu. The spinach pies are made with fresh spinach, but have a slippery, mushy texture that begs for more cheese. The pastitsio macaroni pie was dull.
But many other standards were just right. The moussaka was a light but tasty casserole layering sauteed eggplant, cinnamon- and clove-scented ground meat, and creamy bechamel. The avgolemono soup was rich with pure beams of chicken and lemon. The classic dips of zippy tzatziki yogurt, the salty pink potato-and-fish-roe whip of tarama salata, and the garlicky potato puree of skordalia were all ideal with Onasis' crusty house-baked bread.
The lamb specialties were also excellent, including an amazingly tender domestic rack that my 8-year-old daughter gnawed to the bone, and a hefty, butter-soft shank braised in a tomatoey gravy perfumed with Greek spice.
The main event, though, remains the seafood, not only the big grilled whole fish, but also the smaller ones - the fresh Portuguese sardines and coveted red mullets (barbouni) that get dusted in flour and sauteed crisp in olive oil.
Onasis also makes some of the area's best octopus, tenderizing those bigger beasts (up to 14 pounds!) in a special manual washing machine for an hour, before roasting to a sublimely perfect chew. Sliced into thick coins, and layered with shaved fennel and chickpeas in a simple red wine vinaigrette, those chargrilled rings are meaty, but yieldingly tender. Almost addictively so.
With octopus like that, Konidaris may not have to break out his bottle dance after all. But if the ghosts of the old Cherry Tree prove too persistent to die, you never know.
"I think," the old folk dancer says proudly, "that I can still do it."
Next week, Craig LaBan previews the dining scene at the Jersey Shore. Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.