Down the Garden Path

Gardens of Salonica
19 Fifth St. NE, Mpls.; (612) 378-0611
Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Anna and Lazaros Christoforides' little Northeast restaurant has mastered the art of appearing like a well-kept secret, when it obviously--so obviously!--is not. Nearly any night sees the place packed to the rafters, waiting parties milling around the doorway like greyhounds at the starting gate; nearly any poll yields the restaurant at the tips of respondents' tongues. Yet when you sit down in the crowded little spot the misty, lemony air washes away any anxiety, the modest paper menu offers bargains galore, the same waitress who's always there sets down an inexpensive bottle of wine, bread, and some garlicky dips, and zips away--and you feel the restaurant was waiting for you, just for you. What's the trick? How does the class flirt make you think she only has eyes for you?

I think the magic is in a couple of basic habits, most significantly that of generosity. By this I mean the way a Greek salad or soup comes with every entrée, as opposed to the cash upgrade every other Greek restaurant in town seems to require. The inexpensive wine list. The way the dip combination plate at $5 serves two people heartily--find another $2.50 appetizer as good, I dare you!

In addition to generosity, there's the loyalty and affection engendered by an attentive, and recognizable, family of staff, and the way all the dishes are made from scratch with healthy ingredients: "Have a good life!" they seem to say. "We're looking out for you."(Conversely, whenever I see a jalapeño popper I intuit a subliminal suggestion: "Get fat! Get heart disease! Sucker.")

To get a glimpse of Gardens of Salonica's origins, order a handful of boughatsa, handmade phyllo pastry triangles. The Christoforides' business started when the two were in graduate school at the University of Minnesota and made 350 boughatsa for a festival. The pastries went over so well that Lazaros went out and secured a storefront from which to wholesale the little treats, and the rest is history. Boughatsa come in eight varieties, with fillings ranging from a zingy leek-skordalia blend and a mushrooms-kefalotyri cheese combination to dessert staples like chocolate and apricot. At only $1.50 apiece, they make the perfect restaurant food--the sort of thing that makes you feel like you're living the life of Martha Stewart, with none of the finicky work.

Recent meals at Gardens of Salonica were peppered with delicious moments that reinforced my (irrational?) belief that the restaurant cares particularly about me. It began with the appetizer dips (available either à la carte or in combination for $5). The tyro ($4 a half pint), a blend of feta cheese, roasted red peppers, spices, and chili peppers is sour and a bit fiery, a great palate wakener. Melitzana ($3.50 a half pint), an herby eggplant purée made with a lot of scallions and parsley, is light, a bit grassy, and thoroughly lovely. And Gardens of Salonica's skordalia, a lemon and garlic potato purée, remains the best appetizer-and-vampire-protection combination in town.

Whenever the Greek salad appears from the restaurant's kitchen, I again feel inexplicably beloved: It's just the way I like it, with a powerful red-wine vinegar dressing made brisk with oregano, plenty of olives, and fresh cut romaine. A number of the main courses are perfect comfort foods, particularly the orzo arni ($9.25)--a sweet stew of braised lamb and pasta in a tomato sauce spiked with nutmeg and sharpened by grated kasseri cheese--and the pastitsio ($8.25), a sort of beefy Greek mac-and-cheese: Sickeningly thick and gooey at many restaurants, here it's as plain as toast and just as good. Desserts like the full and milky rice pudding ($2) or potent little brandied chocolates made with hazelnuts ($1.50) are perfect toppers to these generous meals, and the baklava ($1.50)--fresh, sticky, full of honey and chunky nuts--is excellent, particularly the kind scented with organic orange peel and cinnamon.

Which isn't to say that I don't have quibbles with Gardens of Salonica. Aside from the awkward way one waits for tables--which will be corrected in the next six weeks or so by the addition of a "taverna" lounge in the adjacent space--many dishes devolve into gloppy messes. Plaki ($8.95) is thick and oily, with none of the lightness baked cod could have. Fricassee arni ($9.25), a preparation of braised lamb with greens in a dill and lemon sauce, has a cafeteria chafing-dish texture, and I can't help thinking that I could easily make the simple dish much better at home.

But could I make it better for $9 with a Greek salad and hot pita? No. The restaurant claims to be a deli, and it is. A deli with integrity, for that matter: Anna Christoforides says Gardens was the first local Greek restaurant not to use iceberg lettuce in its salads, to unapologetically use garlic, and the first brave enough not to doctor its tzatziki--the yogurt-cucumber sauce--with sour cream or mayonnaise for supposedly timid Minnesota palates.

However, I'd be lying if I said there was anything on the menu to really challenge or delight a true Greek-food fan. (I grew up in a largely Greek neighborhood in Queens, and my springtimes were studded with enormous picnics of spit-roasted lamb, marinated charred octopus salads, unbelievable accomplishments wrought from fresh lima beans--and to this day I've never seen a restaurant stuffed grape leaf that approaches the ones made on my mom's block.)

Christoforides readily admits that when she and her husband opened Gardens of Salonica nearly eight years ago they chose to create a populist restaurant, not a gourmet one: "If we charged $15 a plate, we could do all organic, all local, but we charge $9 a plate--which makes us one of the best meal deals in the Cities." True enough: A leisurely, gimme-all-you-got, belt-busting three-hour meal--boughatsa, a dip or three with bread, soup or salad, an entrée, dessert, wine, and coffee--might only run $25 a person.

As a critic, I feel torn between my expectations and real life. On one hand I've had to accept that certain cuisines--Greek, Spanish, and Mexican spring to mind--aren't represented locally with any visionary magnificence, and on the other hand a goodhearted place like Gardens of Salonica doles out soup pots of hospitality, platters of goodwill, and heaping banquets of gracious generosity. Especially when I consider the many, many rotten restaurants I've been to lately--the ones where the guest is nothing but a cog in someone's money-making scheme, where one fights to get a table, does battle with stubborn staffers and in return gets only cost-cutting lowest-common-denominator food--Gardens of Salonica inspires me. It makes me want to take a megaphone and march up and down the avenues hooting: This is not rocket science, people! Be gracious, give the people some food, and they will adore you! It's not that hard.

 

TABLEHOPPING

CATCH THE NOODLE: And you thought yo-yos were impressive. Flying through the air, zing zing, loop-de-loop, walk the dog. Whatever. Let's see what you think after watching noodle master Tseing Wang swing and toss dough into 1,000-strand Chinese dragon's beard noodles (long xu main). Chef Wang, owner of San Francisco's San Wang and a native of Shandong in northern China, is in town for Big Bowl's Noodle Festival this Monday and Tuesday May 3 and 4, and he will be noodle-throwing at the Galleria'sBig Bowl restaurant on those days at 12:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. My advice? Gather a party of six or more as soon as possible and make reservations at the ultrapopular spot; call (612) 928-7888. And hey, if you're too cool to be wowed by thousand-strand noodles, you can always throw down in the kids' "Doodle the Noodle" contest.

ESCARGOTS OPTIONAL:This Tuesday, May 4, also sees the monthly meeting of an informal wine club at Caffé Solo. These tastings--which cost $25, start at 6:30, and feature a tapas or antipasti menu to go along with the wines--are the brainchild of Solo owner Dave King, who loves wine, but hates the pretense and expense that accompany many oenophilic gatherings. "The idea," says King, "is to have a wine club for people who want to know more about wine but don't want to spend $75 to $100 to have some Frenchman lecture them while slugging snails out of the escargot shells." Themes for the Solo dinners vary: Sometimes it's as simple as exploring the wines of a varietal or a geographic region, other times it's a playful premise like comparing wines grown at similar elevations. King's coup de grâce: "I keep the last wine of the evening in a bag, and everybody tastes it, and everybody has to take a guess as to what that wine is--sometimes it's related to the previous wines I've been talking about, sometimes it's not." To get on the informal e-mail list that alerts interested parties to upcoming gatherings, send a note to Caffé Solo (123 N. Third St., Minneapolis, MN 55401; solo@bitstream.net). If you want to go to the one this Tuesday just call the restaurant, (612) 332-7108, so they know how many to cook for. Or don't: "We appreciate an RSVP, but it's not critical," says King, no doubt causing a lecturing Frenchman somewhere to fling away his escargot in disgust.

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