8650 Genesee Avenue, 1, San Diego
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.
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.
In Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Richard Wrangham persuasively expounds the exciting idea that the invention of cooking was the crucial step that allowed prehumans to evolve into Homo sapiens, with a big brain, defined sex roles, and ground-dwelling lifestyle. The writing style is simple but dry, sometimes repetitive and defensive — and I hope the science is more accurate than the author’s concepts about modern foodstuffs. (His “recipe” for foie gras is an over-elaborate hoot, and he swallows unquestioningly all the myths about Kobe beef.) But if you’re curious about how food made us what we are, the ideas are red hot!
Apollonia Greek Bistro
***1/2 (Very Good to Excellent)
Costa Verde Shopping Center, 8650 Genesee Avenue (just north of Nobel Drive), UTC, 858-455-1535, apolloniabistro.com.
HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 11:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., weekends until 10:00.
PRICES: Soups, appetizers, and dips, $3.19–$7.69 (combo $14); salads, $5–$9 (more with added proteins); sandwiches, $6.29–$8.29; entrées, $11–$19 (including combos). Desserts, $2.39–$6.29.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Wide array of Greek dishes includes seafood and vegetarian entrées. Well-chosen, affordable international wines (loads under $30); full bar, including Greek beer and wines, cocktails.
PICK HITS: Taramasalata (cod roe mousse), rice-stuffed grape leaves, Horiatiki salad with lentil pilaf, moussaka, spinach pastitsio, Imam Bayaldi, desserts. Good bet: yemista (zucchini stuffed with bulgur).
NEED TO KNOW: Numerous choices for vegetarians and vegans (just brush off the feta fluff). Roofed outdoor patio. Kiddie menu, takeout, reasonably priced banquet menus. Service inconsistent, probably best on weeknights. Very busy and potentially noisy on weekends; for quiet, reserve ahead for patio.