A charming dining room, real Greek home-cooking
Across the flagstone patio that is still unused in the chill of winter, a charming cottage dining room is warmed by the wood-fire heat of an iron stove. It is just like the stoves Paul Bouikidis knew in Northern Greece before he came to Philadelphia, where he has owned Pine Street Pizza for the past 20 years.
In contrast to his pizzeria across the street, this restaurant, owned by his wife and daughter, Loula and Effie Bouikidis, has an unmistakeably Greek flair. The stucco walls and white-washed beams of the 16-seat back cottage, in particular, leave little doubt at all. "Grandmom's dining room," as Effie likes to call it.
I couldn't think of a more appropriate setting for Effie's a cozy gem of a neighborhood restaurant that serves the kind of old-fashioned satisfaction Grandmom herself might have offered.
Whether whisking her chicken rice soup into a lemony egg custard for just the right consistency or rolling her own phyllo dough into papery sheets with a broom handle so the fabulous spinach pie will have a true Macedonian crackle, the touch of a caring cook is evident here.
This 34-seat BYOB is rewardingly affordable, with entrees that top out at $15. And the preparations have a straightforward simplicity that can make rustic Greek cooking so satisfying when the ingredients are fresh,
Succulent whole fish are grilled with little more than olive oil, oregano and lemon. Anything more might obscure the subtle pleasures of a pristine catch. Delicate tubes of calamari, dredged simply in flour then flash fried, need only tenderness and a squeeze of lemon to disappear from the plate.
Skewered cubes of grilled lamb souvlaki (which means "stick" in Greek) are irrestistibly fragrant, helped along by a refreshing side of tzaziki cucumber salad cloaked in deliciously thick, homemade yogurt. A mountain of shaved gyros meat, a seasoned combination of ground iamb and beef, fared equally well.
Feta cheese, imported from the northern region of Iperos, is served in plain thick wedges with salty kalamata olives and good yellow Greek olive oil. A full hunk of it in the mouth conjures the fruity creaminess of wild sheep's milk in a way that feta never does when it's crumbled, as usual, in a supporting role over salads.
Loula Bouikidis is such a stickler for purity, she won't mix oregano and bayleaf in her tomato sauces for fear that one might cancel the other out. Her plum tomato sauce is indeed rather plain. But it is more of an accent than a centerpiece flavor, glazing hearty casseroles of eggplant moussaka and wonderful pastitsio with color and piquancy, a perfect contrast to the creamy layers of bechamel that top them.
The casseroles are big as paving stones and just about as filling, The moussaka takes one step toward lightening the classic, grilling instead of frying the eggplant slices before layering them in with potatoes, ground beef and bechamel.
Used as a braising liquid for tender leg of lamb, the tomato sauce absorbs wonderful gamy flavors, and each bite snaps with the bright sparks of peppercorns gone soft over three hours of cooking.
For a small restaurant, Effie's kitchen seems to thrive on the crowds that jam its doors, undeterred by the frequent waits of a no-reservation policy. So much so, however, that it seemed to lose its adrenaline on a quiet and Loula-less evening. The spinach pie lost a hint of crispness in its crunch. A panfried fillet of flounder was humdrum compared to the flavorful fish off the grill. A faintly fishy taste of iodine crept through the tomato sauce of shrimp Santorini. And the char-happy cooks let bread and tender octopus acquire too much burnt evidence of the grill.
The servers, however, were consistently pleasant, informative and hardworking. And while they were attentive at a respectable level for a casual restaurant like Effie's, it would be a big improvement if they took the small extra effort to replace used silverware between courses instead of leaving it directly on the bare table.
Effie's baklava, on the other hand, could not be improved at all. How many times has a lesser restaurant cheated, layering nuts and honey like a simple sandwich between thick stacks of wadded brown phyllo? The impostors slip and slide and shatter artlessly between the teeth.
I could not count the layers of Loula's baklava. There simply were too many of those fine translucent sheets, each one carefully brushed with melted butter then dusted with nuts and cinnamon. Once baked, yet still hot from the oven, the pastry is drenched in a syrupy elixir infused with cinnamon, honey and lemon. After a minimum of six hours' soaking, the phyllo leaves seem to hover invisibly in an ambrosia that only time and love could create.
Like the wonderful rice pudding, the phyllo dough tubes filled with semolina custard and the shredded-wheat plugs wrapped around walnuts and cinnamon, the flavor of a real baklava is a triumph of authentic "grandmom cuisine."
And so is Effie's.
Craig LaBan's e-mail address is email@example.com.