My favorite place in Greece is the island of Kithira, just below the Peloponnesian Peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea. There, one is met at the ferry by the owner of one of the local tavernas , and brought back to a modest home to enjoy simple accommodation, sunny afternoons, solitude and excellent peasant cooking. Nothing in Athens can match the experience of a meal in an island taverna , or compete with a Kithiran sunset.
Mene (short for Melpomene, the tragic muse of Greek lore) Hazikostandi’s family comes from the island of Lesbos in the Aegean, and her El Toro restaurant, Mene’s Terrace, comes close to re-creating the taverna experience. The fact that there is a Denny’s in full view just outside the door does not reflect on her family.
It’s a sun-splashed restaurant with white stucco walls that look almost bleached, the way the sides of the houses do on Aegean islands. Blue clapboard shutters have been built into them, giving the effect of sitting on a terrace between two Greek houses. The Greek national colors, blue and white, are everywhere you look: Chairs are blue and white. Tablecloths are blue and white. Menus are blue and white. The only thing missing are blue-and-white plate specials.
It’s a small menu, and everything is prepared the way a grandmother at an Orthodox festival would prepare it. Mene’s son, Albert, shares the cooking chores with his mother, while daughter Christina handles the dining room. It’s a real family operation, just like real tavernas invariably are, and almost everything served has a homey taste, not at all like “restaurant food.”
Start with one of the restaurant’s seductive filo pastries, tiropita (cheese-filled pastry triangle) or spanakopita (similar in shape with a spinach filling). Mene has a way with these thin pastry leaves, and her interpretation would be hard to improve upon. The filling in the tiropita is soft and creamy, and the pastry is crisp and buttery. The spinach filling is marbled with melted feta and little bits of minced onion. Spanakopita is a great snack food, and deceptively rich as an appetizer. Surprisingly, the cheese filling is the lighter of the two.
Most dinners come with a choice of soup or salad, and although the salad is horiatiki (the well-known Greek salad with Kalamata olives, feta cheese and other goodies), I’d say the soup wins hands down. It is, predictably, avgolemono , the chicken-based egg lemon soup with rice, and has to be the single best dish in this restaurant. I cannot remember ever eating a more delicate version of this dish. There isn’t the slightest hint of curdling in the egg, and the lemon taste is as refreshing as a dip in a Greek lagoon.
Mene also has a touch with bechamel (the milk, egg and flour-based sauce used to top the oven-baked casseroles that we have come to identify with Greek cooking), moussaka , and pastitsio . Mene’s bechamel is smooth and creamy, not at all hard and starchy like it tends to become, and that gives the dishes more lightness than one has a right to expect.
At dinner, I had the pastitsio (essentially macaroni and ground meat with aromatic spices and bechamel topping), and found it wonderfully fragrant and soft. But at lunch, a side order of moussaka was ruined by a side trip to a microwave (as were otherwise fine kefthedes , mint-seasoned Greek meatballs). The moussaka in this restaurant is finely layered, and almost ethereal in its delicacy. Shame and double shame to zap it with mean-spirited, 20th-Century technology.
There’s no danger of microwave radiation, however, if you order something from the charcoal broiler. Char-broiled items are likely to be marinated in pools of lemon juice before being brought to the broiler, and dotted with basic Greek-cuisine seasonings such as oregano, garlic and possibly even nutmeg. Chicken souvlaki is tender and juicy, brought on the skewer atop a bed of buttery rice pilaf mixed with orzo pasta. Seafood souvlaki is actually more impressive: chunks of snapper, scallops and cod flanked by a couple of blackened shrimp. There is even beef souvlaki , of all things, for all-American palates.
Of course, this is a Greek restaurant and so there is lamb--in all shapes and sizes: broiled, chopped, skewered, and my choice, psito , or roasted. The roast lamb is sliced up generously and served with the kind of roasted potatoes you can find only in homey Greek restaurants like this one: caramel-brown hunks loaded with olive oil, pan juices and flavor.
Mene’s Terrace serves complimentary baklava after dinner--there are no other desserts. “I used to make others,” Mene told me, “but no one bought them because the baklava were free.” And because her baklava are just too good. She confided that nowadays she uses a food processor to crush up the walnuts, but I guess we can forgive her for that. She’s not exactly running a taverna , you know.
Prices are as follows: appetizers, $4.95; dinners, $8.25 to $16.95. Expect a 50-cent price increase on a new menu coming out soon. There is a nice selection of Achaia-Clauss Greek wines to choose from, starting at $2.50 per glass.
23532 El Toro Road (in the Orange Tree Plaza), El Toro
Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Monday-Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
MasterCard and Visa accepted