8650 Genesee Avenue, University City
Looking at the $20 menus for upcoming Restaurant Week, the sole temptation was Apollonia — but clicking to the website menu, I realized I wanted a whole lot more than $20 would buy. Here, finally, is a Greek menu that covers the territory, with serious food, not generic Mediterranean fast-food. Greece is islands, yes? So here we have multiple choices of seafoods, not fried calamari alone. Dolmas? Not just rice-stuffed grape leaves, but with meat or salmon stuffings. But they really got me with Imam Bayaldi, bestowed (ahem!) on Greece by the Ottoman Conquest — a lush, labor-intensive Turkish stuffed eggplant that nobody else offers, least of all San Diego’s few Turkish restaurants.
Apollonia used to be Aesop’s Table, one of the Pappas sisters’ several restaurants; e.g., Athens Market downtown and Hillcrest’s newly closed (boo-hoo) California Cuisine. Two years ago, the owners of PB’s popular Cafe Athena bought the place and changed the name. This info is secondhand, because when I phoned, I couldn’t reach anybody who knew anything. Reluctantly fielding my call at 4:48 p.m., the day after I ate there, the frazzled hostess was hard pressed to verify hours. She said there’d be nobody around who could answer my other questions that day or the next or… So I left a message and hit Google and a mess of websites, hoping to dig up Apollonia’s secret history. Yelp, where I don’t much trust the ratings, contributed some interesting input. Most reviews were screaming raves for the food, but a third were howling complaints about service.
Eating on a weeknight, we did fine with the service, after some initial roughness. The hostess showed our fivesome to a table for four, slapping an extra chair and place-setting at the end. As soon as she left, Jim and Fred kidnapped a nearby vacant two-top and an extra chair for purses, et al., which the hostess should have done — food for five needs a six-top. But our waiter, James, was charming and turbo-charged, though there were occasional absences while he served other rooms. I suspect the management may demand that wait-staff cover too much territory; this might account for the rude phone reception and the Yelp yelps. Since the restaurant is in a campus area, it’s probably best to bypass weekend date-nights.
We were in one of several small banquet rooms (there are larger dining rooms, a lounge, and a roofed, heated patio outside). I didn’t much notice the decor because it wasn’t interesting — spiffed-up sprawling roadhouse with Hellenic tchotchkes. We shared the room with a 12-person, three-generation family banquet, but all was well. Their conversation was quiet, the children happy and good. Greece, cradle of civilization!
I needed an oversized posse to enjoy a feast for the gods and, at Apollonia’s prices, could afford one. We disguised ourselves as mortals in the usual Greek-godly fashion. Samurai Jim (Ares) headed the list — he spent 18 months in Greece doing computer security for the Olympics and noshed in numerous regions. He brought honey-haired Michelle (Helen of Troy) and hairless witty neighbor Fred (Hermes), who was rather quiet that evening, and I invited new friend Debbie (Artemis), another Greek-travel vet and one of the Cygnet Theatre team that auctioned off me and my posse a few months ago. I, Pallas Athena (wise-guy goddess, sprung from Zeus’s head), chose most of the morsels, with input from my fellow deities.
Ninety degrees that night. First: a chilly, citrusy Kim Crawford NZ Sauvignon Blanc. “Ah, this hits the spot!” chorused Michelle and Debbie. “With that, you need some saganaki, flaming sheep-milk cheese,” said waiter James. We agreed, adding mezedakia, a combo plate of starters that includes spanakopita (spinach-filo pie in a filo crust), tyropita (feta-filled filo, which never showed), tzatziki yogurt dip, tasty marinated artichokes, feta cubes, and yalandji (rice-stuffed grape leaves), plus — ta-da! — taramasalata (caviar mousse).
Let the last be first, as taramasalata is least known and most addictive. It’s a smooth dip of red-cod roe blended with potatoes, olive oil, and lemon juice. I used to buy it regularly from an Israeli deli in my old neighborhood. Before the meze platter was gone, my friends were hooked, too.
Yalandji, rice dolma, were a welcome shock to Jim. “Usually, in America,” he said, “the filling is very simple and the rolls are swamped in lemon juice. These are really different — complex.” The stuffing included diced tomato, onions, red pepper, mint, and pomegranate molasses, with a creaminess hinting of olive oil. The texture was so interesting, I suspected (incorrectly) a few lentils or split peas in there, Persian style. The spanakopita were wonderful. The brandy-flamed saganaki (“oo-pa!”) of vlahotyri sheep cheese was briefly charming, until it cooled from molten to solid. Gotta gobble that one fast, smeared on pita triangles, before you hit the taramasalata and get fatally distracted.
Jim had been complaining that all the American-Greek joints he’s tried serve a “Greek salad” featuring iceberg lettuce, which he never encountered in any Grecian locale. He remembered delicious salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, and feta. Found! His lost dish is called Horiatiki, “village salad.” Although the tomatoes should be riper this time of year, the cuke chunks were seeded, firm, and perfectly salted, and for a few cents extra, instead of pita, we had it served around a lentil-rice pilaf — the very soul of soulfulness, a table favorite. “So fulfilling,” sighed Debbie. If you’re looking for a light vegetarian meal with perfect nutritional balance that tastes great, this is ideal.
For the entrées, I ordered an affordable Coppola “Diamond” Pinot Noir to complement the lamb dishes — and, to taste a Greek white with the shrimp, a glass of Greek semillon that our waiter talked up, Moschofilero. Rich and only slightly sweet, the white was dynamite — perfect with meze, veggies, or seafood.
For a first-timer, the easiest way to taste enough dishes to find your favorites is via the combination entrées, which feed two. I chose the Vegetarian Phantasia and the Grecian Feast, amended by Shrimp Skorpios and lamb kebabs.