Let the worst come first: I asked for the lamb kebabs rare. “Medium rare?” James asked. “No, dark rosy pink inside.” Well, fat chance. Nice surface marinade, but with dry pinky-brown meat, you can’t really taste whether it’s ram, lamb, or llama. The kebabs (and other plates) came with excellent rice pilaf amended with skillet-toasted vermicelli (the original Rice-A-Roni!) and briami, a Greek version of ratatouille with eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers (red and green), tomato, and onion. The broiled shrimp (pleasant, if a tad overcooked) came in a tomato-herb sauce. But the combos were where the action was.
Imam Bayaldi is the centerpiece of the vegetable combo. The name means “the imam fainted.” Some say the priest fainted at the rich deliciousness of the olive oil-infused eggplant. Others say it was when he realized how much his cook had spent on expensive olive oil for a single dish. Here, the dish consists of eggplant stuffed with raisins, walnuts, tomatoes (and, I think, minced onions), baked in fresh tomato sauce. It was meltingly tender — but on the crowded combo plate, too much rice pilaf became stuck to it, dissipating the suave texture with graininess. (I’d prefer it as a solo and also wished I had an additional mouth to try Yemista, a light entrée of summer squash stuffed with bulgur wheat.)
The co-star of the veggie array was something Jim remembered with nostalgia, spinach pastitsio — a rich casserole of herbed spinach, penne (tender, and not in excessive quantity) and pesto, topped with béchamel sauce and melted vlahotyri cheese. Jim was totally happy with it, and I was even happier, because the last time I tried this was at a Greek restaurant in London, ha-ha! (Never, ever eat Greek food in London! That’s what Pakistani and Jamaican and Cornish pasties from the pub are for! Eat hot hot curry, eat sizzling jerk!) More yalandji and briami arrived on the platter, along with a tasty baked mini-casserole of small dried fava beans, fassoulia. (Sound familiar, like “pasta fazool”? That’s the pronunciation in neighboring Sicily for beans with pasta.)
The highlight of the Grecian Feast was another of Jim’s remembered favorites — moussaka, a casserole of eggplant, zucchini, and ground lamb, topped (like the spinach pasta) with béchamel and sheep cheese. Perfect! Delicate! Greaseless! You want to dive in head first, lap it up. We left not a speck. Best moussaka I’ve ever tasted — lush but ethereal.
The array also included dolmathakia (grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice, and herbs) and boureki, filo filled with ground lamb, pine nuts, and onion. The dolma filling was excessively salty that night (relieved by tzatziki). The boureki didn’t make much impression. Perhaps palate fatigue was afflicting this mortal body that Athena had adopted for the evening (or lifetime). The plate also offered a few gyros. Jim recalled zestfully that, in Greece, the pitas filled with gyros were also often stuffed with french fries. In San Diego, most gyros come from a single gyro-factory, which is why they all taste alike. Here, at least, they were thickly sliced and tender, so you could appreciate the texture. They don’t come with fries, of course. On the combo, they’re served with pilaf and briami, tzatziki, and pita triangles.
Any palate fatigue vanished with the arrival of desserts. The cinnamon-scented baklava are dripped with unconventional lavender syrup. They aren’t excessively sweet, they’re fascinating. Crêpe Mavrodaphne suited our sated condition: poached fresh pears in Greek sweet-wine syrup, encased in a light crêpe topped with vanilla ice cream, all ethereal and floaty. Galacto-Boureko, filo rolls filled with orange zest–flavored custard, were drizzled with sexy rosewater syrup. My espresso was awfully bitter. Michelle’s Greek coffee tasted like the same stuff, lightly sweetened, but with the standard Levantine sludge underlay. We both amended our potions with splooches of the ice cream from the crêpes. We goddesses can overlook small flaws sometimes if you otherwise please our Olympian palates.
Frank Bruni, just-departed restaurant critic of the New York Times, will be speaking at the UCSD Revelle Forum series (September 16 at 7:00 p.m.). about his new book, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater. It centers on Bruni’s lifelong struggle with being overweight but is not another grim self-helper — he’s a charming, humorous writer, painting a vibrant picture of his food-loving Italian family. Part of his growing up was local, in La Jolla! The book’s final section is about life as America’s most powerful food critic (fewer wigs and disguises than Ruth Reichl). My one disappointment: How did he educate himself to deal with New York’s huge array of worldwide ethnic cuisines? Not a word about that. He’ll be at the auditorium of the Neurosciences Institute (10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive). Admission is $25, with free parking. Call 858-882-8000 (refer to section ID #073608) or register at revelleforum.ucsd.edu.
Thrilled to hear that "Julia Child Volume I" (that is, the first volume of Mastering the Art…) is selling like hot crêpes again, thanks to Julie and Julia. Jacques Pépin is devilish-cute, but foodies need frumpy Julia on the shelf, too. In my early 20s, I saw one of her shows on someone else’s TV — the weirdest, plainest woman among all the glamour gals. Loved her and her attitude! I immediately embarked on a garage-sale crawl, certain that I would score a copy of her book. Unlike blogger Julie, I didn’t cook every recipe in it, but eventually cooked two-thirds of them. It introduced me to all the great, basic dishes of French cuisine, way before I could afford French restaurants (or airfare). Following those detailed, persnickety recipes taught me technique, the right way to do things. (Makes me a cranky critic sometimes, skeptical of cliché-ridden French menus, knowing I’ve cooked those very dishes as well — or better, if they’re using sleazy shortcuts.) It’s still indispensable, even if I now use the recipes more as aide-mémoires, or general guidelines, rather than following them literally. Julia’s food does run heavy, not just in butter but in labor-intensive reductions like Sauce Perigourd, staples of Parisian restaurants 50-plus years ago. If you’re a foodie, you should probably get it, anyway; think of the recipes as “weekend cooking” for pleasure — there are plenty of reasonably easy, scandalously sensual treats, along with the laborious ones.