On the Lamb
I like Greek food, but it's never seemed like much of a cuisine to me.
Greek food isn't a cuisine because it has no rules. Ask a hundred Greeks how to make tzatziki -- the ubiquitous yogurt and cucumber sauce -- and even though tzatziki contains only about four ingredients, you'll get a hundred different answers. Ask four Greeks at the same time, and the discussion will go on for hours. Drinks will most definitely be required. And by the time you're all done talking, not only will you have four absolutely authentic methods for preparing tzatziki, but also four new friends (or four bitter enemies), a complete history of Greek culture, from Homer to Melina Kanakaredes, and vivid descriptions of what everyone's grandpa did during the war.
I've worked with Greeks and I've worked for Greeks, and I've been eating Greek food since forever. Greeks have long ruled the Rust Belt greasy spoon and all-night roadhouse diner scene. In towns like Rochester and Buffalo and Cleveland and Scranton, I lived on gyros and feta, on souvlaki and eggs, on grilled pitas stuffed with cheese and eggs and tomatoes and potatoes heavy with paprika, and never thought of it as "Greek food." We -- my cooks and I -- never said, "Let's go eat Greek" when the bars closed. We just called the places by name: Nick's, Tom's, Pano's or whatever, though they were always run by guys named Alex or Jimmy -- guys not much older than us, the sons of Nick and Tom and Pano. Irish parents, well-versed in their own history of tenant farming and occupation, consider the American Dream achieved when they can pass a house or a little bit of property down to their children. But the Greeks (or at least the East Coast Greeks, the ones I knew) leave a legacy of restaurants to their offspring and a tradition of sobering up all the Micks with muddy coffee and baklava before sending them home to the ancestral suburban manse. It's a good system.
Still, Greek food is not a cuisine. When you talk about the world's great food cultures -- French, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Indian -- you're talking about hundreds, sometimes thousands of years of refinement. You're talking about classifiable regional derivation (Cantonese versus Szechuan, Tuscan versus Neapolitan) and a depth of possibilities that can make an entire career for a guy who cooks only in the Lyonnaise green-market style and a totally different career for the guy next door who cooks only Parisian bistro food. You're talking about rules and canon and strictures more severe than the most conservative bogwater Baptist Jesus cult.
But when you talk about Greek food, it's all feta, kalamata, souvlaki and baklava, in endless variations. It's the stories your weird uncle tells about the honeymoon cruise through the Greek Islands he took with his third wife because he totally had the wrong idea of what he'd find on Lesbos. "They eat squids there!" your weird uncle says. "And they light the cheese on fire!" Then he unbuttons his shirt, pushes aside the gold chains and, for the dozenth time, shows you the scar where his first and only saganaki experience got out of hand.
Greek food is a tradition, certainly a style, arguably a system designed to feed lambs to Americans who only think about consuming lamb on Easter (a creepy bit of cannibalistic Christian transubstantiation, that) and to get as many people as possible to eat meat on sticks. A true cuisine is more serious than that, and these days the best cuisines (French and Italian and so forth) are serious about returning food to its traditional roots. French at its most haute, Italian at its most honest -- both are designed to get food back to the farm or kitchen table where it originated, for stripping away pretense and complication and presenting it like the stuff grandmère cooked for grandpère. Slow food, farmhouse and green-market techniques have all been imposed on runaway cuisines in hopes of stopping arrogant young chefs from wrapping everything in gold foil and serving dishes with sauces made of strangled pepper and Styrofoam flambé.
But Greek cooking never went too far, because the Greeks cut out the middle step of codification and convention. If you never write anything down, if you never make any rules about how a thing must be done, cuisine never develops. And if cuisine never develops, the food never moves beyond the kitchen, the cafe, the dining-room table. The Greeks have never had to worry about returning their food to its peasant roots -- because no Greek ever thought of taking it anywhere else.
At Yanni's Greek Taverna, which has occupied the same spot in a quiet South Monaco strip mall since 1981, you can sometimes smell the honesty a mile away. When the wind is right, when owner Yanni Stavropoulos has the gigantic outdoor rotisserie grill fired up, the odor of roasting meat and garlic and wine mixes with car exhaust and the stink of hot blacktop into an aroma of history cut loose from chronology. You see Stavropoulos standing over that grill like some kind of minor laughing spirit from an expurgated chapter of The Iliad -- the Lamb God, bringer of barbecue -- and you understand at a very basic, gut level why Greek food never really developed: because there was never any reason for it to change.
So, of course, there are grape leaves on Yanni's menu -- ripe and tender like steamed spinach and stuffed with herbed rice -- as well as feta and gyros and souvlaki. Like Turkish food and Moroccan food and a lot of Middle Eastern foods, Greek cooking relies on what first appears to be a limited number of possible ingredients. Salt and pepper, yogurt and cucumber, olives and lemons, and pita and phyllo recur again and again. But then, what does it take to make a great piece of fish? Lemon and butter and nothing else. And you don't need a deep pantry to make sinagrida -- grilled red snapper -- or oktapodi (octopus) marinated in olive oil.
At Yanni's, the mezedes -- a long list of appetizers, tastes of this and that, small plates that can easily be combined to make a meal -- reads like an Aegean dream sequence, like poetry spoken in a language you only understand in your sleep. I eat long, lingering dinners of nothing but mezedes, never even turning the pages of the menu. Dolmades and kalamaria; tiri that's really just a plate of imported feta soaked in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano, perfect in its restraint and simplicity; spanikopita with spinach and feta layered inside phyllo; tiropita that's a little soggy but comes stuffed with three kinds of herbed cheese and tastes almost like a cold Spanish omelette wrapped in a hundred layers of pastry. There's tzatziki, of course, made with yogurt, cucumber and "secret seasonings" and served with pita, then skordalia (a potato, garlic, garlic and garlic purée), then hot sausage dressed in lemon called loukaniko, then more skordalia and melitzanes (eggplant) done in an approximation of the Italian street-food style, with red gravy.
The saganaki is served flaming and tastes of the cheap brandy that gives it life, overtopped by the sting of lemons squeezed at the table to keep the flames leaping. The cheese itself -- Kasseri -- is funky and strong. The mythia might as well be French, because it's mussels sautéed with garlic and olive oil and drowned in white wine, which is the best preparation of mussels that man has ever invented. And while most French restaurants would offer two or five or a dozen other preparations, Yanni's recognizes that the best one is enough.
At some point after we're seated but before the first plates begin arriving, Yanni himself always comes around with the bottle of ouzo and a stack of plastic shot glasses, pouring and grinning, barking "Opa!" as we tap them and drink -- a taste like black licorice set on fire.
Sit in the front room where the bar is, and Yanni may drop by more than once. He may even stop and chat. He's not a host so much as a pal, happy to see everyone who finds their way to his little restaurant -- and, like his friendly staff, is always happy to serve, something that becomes increasingly rare the more a restaurant leans toward cuisine, the further it gets from its duty of cooking for friends and neighbors. In the side room, the ceiling sags a little and the paint is chipped. The space looks a little ragged, but when it's full of families and regulars and the Greeks who swear by Yanni's versions of everything, I tend to forget about that. The chairs wobble and there are crayon marks on the plaster, but I don't care once the ouzo is drunk, chased with a cold Heineken, and the waitress lights the saganaki.
My last time through, I ordered a double brace of mezedes just to get started, then the lamb souvlaki. But by the time the apps plates were cleared from the table, the ouzo swallowed and first beers put away, I'd forgotten what I'd ordered, because when the waitress brought my entree, it never occurred to me that it wasn't the right one. It was lamb -- beautiful and sliced thin off a leg, capped with fat and rubbed with black pepper -- and it looked fine to me. The waitress, though, realized her mistake before I'd gotten a chance to cut a bite and swooped down on the table apologetically, saying, "I'm sorry. That's not yours, is it?"
I said no, probably not, but asked what it was.
"Our barbecue special. Lamb barbecue," she replied. She looked over her shoulder, quickly scanned the dining room. Then she picked a small piece of meat off the plate with her fingers, dropped it on my plate and said, conspiratorially, "Here. Have a taste."
Maybe in some restaurants, this would have been strange. Or even wrong. But not here, not in this room, and not on this night. This lamb is what Stavropoulos cooks on that big, monster grill out front of the place. Not all he cooks there, but all I need. It was the best lamb I've tasted in my life.
At Yanni's, the souvlaki is good -- tender and bloody and grill-scarred and served with a side of lemon rice that's as good as any risotto -- but the barbecued lamb is better. The pastitsio is good, the Greek-spiced lamb shank is good, that snapper a hallmark of trusting in good ingredients to carry a dish wherever it needs to go, but the barbecued lamb is still better. It should be curriculum, the ultimate argument for food over cuisine. One taste -- one little slip of perfectly rare meat with a lace of fresh-squeezed lemon and a narrow rind of fat running around its edge -- and I knew that this was it: a singular and defining flavor, as old as time, but so surprising at that first bite.
I bolted down my souvlaki, shoveled in the rice, dug into the side of onions and green beans in a delicate, subtly spicy and rustic tomato gravy. I was dining with three other people, but I have no idea what they ate; I didn't taste it. Instead, I called the waitress back over and ordered myself a plate of that barbecue, please, to go, but please bring it now so that I know the kitchen won't run out. And no sooner had she delivered the Styrofoam box than I started eating the lamb with my fingers, laying it across pieces of leftover pita. I was stuffed, but I wasn't going to stop. This was the cleanest, purest ingredient high I'd gotten off a dish since discovering sushi, since my first perfect bowl of mussels nearly fifteen years ago. Finally, I had to take the box out to the car just to stop myself from eating it all on the spot.
And then I came back in and sat down. I nibbled at a bit of European-tasting bread still left in our table's basket. Full as I was, I wasn't quite done yet, so I waited for the waitress to come by again, then asked what she had for dessert.
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