When the test kitchen's been fired up since 1000 B.C., it's hard to improve on old family recipes. Although some of the ingredients--lemons, honey, eggplant, phyllo--popularly associated with Greek food didn't come along until many years and several foreign rulers later, the ancient Greeks were tending olive trees and grapevines long before some guy named Escoffier decided everything would taste better with butter. But Greek cuisine has an even more crucial and time-honored component: attitude.
As one of our well-traveled friends explained with the wistful tone of fond memory, tavernas in Greece have open-door policies that extend well into the kitchen. This gentleman often found himself selecting his meal straight from large stockpots on the stove or from a pile of fresh seafood just off the boat. The owner would join in his discussion with the chef of that evening's repast, then pour a dram or two of ouzo to spur on the appetite.
Although we weren't invited into the kitchen at Yanni's, owner Yanni Stavropoulos spread true taverna spirit throughout his restaurant, hopping from table to table and pouring anise-flavored liqueur into little colored-plastic shot glasses for anyone who answered in the affirmative to his enthusiastic "Ouzo?" His friendliness was surpassed only by that of our waitress; she cheerfully responded to all of our grilling about the food, and sympathized with us when her announcement that the listed sweetbread dish had been discontinued met with moans. "It doesn't keep well," she said, "and it's not that popular."
So instead of thymus glands, an appetizer of oktapodi ($6.95) satisfied our yen for the exotic. The pleasantly chewy octopus pieces had been lightly marinated in olive oil and left to swim in tomato juice, translucent onions and shards of green pepper. An order of kalamaria a la Mykonos ($6.95) brought several small mollusks' worth of bodies and tentacles sauteed in a tomato-based sauce teeming with garlic that clung to the soft-as-marshmallows meat. Yanni's dolmades ($3.95 for two) were more conventional but equally good; the traditional grape leaves stuffed with rice, raisins and pine nuts came with a yogurt sauce bulging with cucumbers. The weakest link in our appetizer chain was the saganaki (3.50), a flat, flaming and ultimately bland piece of Kasseri, Greece's mild sheep's-milk cheese. Although the brandy always cooks off of these things, in home experiments I've found that its flavor lasts longer when the cheese is coated with breadcrumbs and deep-fried, then flambeed.
Yanni's sticks to tried-and-true recipes for its entrees. Souvlaki with chicken ($7.95) skewered mushrooms, tomatoes, juicy onions and chunks of red and green bell peppers along with the meat. Although the entire kabob had been marinated in the usual olive oil and lemon juice, the chicken still stayed on the dry side; it had been liberally sprinkled with (not quite enough) oregano. Parsleyed, pilaf-style rice came with both the souvlaki and the garides tourkolimanos ($12.95): eight large shrimp sauteed with fresh tomatoes, olive oil, a little sugar and enough feta cheese to give the dish a creamy consistency.
Our other two entrees were just as traditional and even more tasty. Yanni's moussaka ($6.95) floated a Parmesan-tinged topping the consistency of mashed potatoes over the eggplant-and-ground-beef casserole; the eggplant had been treated with care, and responded with a mellow flavor well seasoned with garlic, parsley and oregano. The dish came with a melange of green beans, stewed tomatoes, onions, carrots and zucchini that had a wonderful braised quality. The same care (and side dish) had been given to the arni me patates ($7.95), a nicely trimmed leg of lamb in a gravy that lacked any trace of grease. The potatoes had been roasted alongside the meat and were swollen with pan juices. Still, the best part of this meal was the garlic--tons of it minced, with a few whole transparent cloves tossed about.
The offerings at lunch travel along the same time-honored lines as those at dinner, and there's even quite a bit of overlap on the two menus--omeletas, gyros, macaronada and sausages are available day and night. So is the avgolemono ($1.95/cup), an egg, lemon and chicken soup that inevitably crops up in any discussion of Greek food. Yanni's version included not only the chicken stock but also pieces of chicken, which, along with the rice, served to tone down the rich, lemony flavors of the broth. We spread the richness further by smearing sweet butter all over the baguette-length breadsticks, which were chewy, warm and right out of the oven.
Fortunately, we stopped short of ruining our appetities for the excellent dishes that followed. The spanakopita ($5.95) was an eight-inch brick of spinach and feta cheese layered between crispy, slightly buttery leaves of phyllo; more green-bean-and-tomato mixture sat on the side. Our pita platter ($5.95) brought a puffy shell stuffed with four large cubes of grilled ahi tuna, white onion rings, diced tomatoes and shreds of parsley; the delicious handful was covered with tzatziki, a freshly made yogurt dip replete with garlic and just enough cucumber to soften the bite.
Stavropoulos is proud of all his recipes, which have been handed down by his family for generations. But he takes particular pride in what he calls his "to-die-for dessert," baklava ice cream ($5.95). A mound of what tasted exactly like baklava smashed up inside vanilla ice cream arrived smothered in Godiva chocolate liqueur. Although the liqueur can be left off, shaving $2 off the price, the complete concoction is worth the splurge. So is the galatoboureko ($2.50), a smooth, creamy custard inside a fluffy cake.
And that's about the only fluff you'll find at Yanni's. This is straightforward, solid Greek food served in a casual, comfortable setting by a friendly waitstaff and an owner who's the most exuberant Greek since Zorba.
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Stavropoulos's care for the customer extends to his choice of retsina, a Greek wine that dates back to the days of no refrigeration. According to legend, shepherds poured their wine into goatskin bags, which were then sealed with pitch, or pine resin, giving the beverage its unique flavor; Greeks soon came to like the taste of pine resin, and started adding it to their wine on purpose.
"We wanted to find a retsina that was the most palatable to the public," Stavropoulos says. "A lot of people don't know what to expect, and some are turned off by the wine. So we actively sought a mild version so no one would be afraid to try it."
Despite my fears, I found Yanni's retsina--made at the Boutari winery in Greece--as agreeable as everything else in this classic taverna.
Now bring on the ouzo.