Santorini moves to new turf but business still booms

Santorini Taverna: Is it a family place or a party palace?

Santorini Taverna: Is it a family place or a party palace?

At six o'clock one Saturday evening, I called Santorini Taverna to see if they could accommodate a party of three later that night. "We're not taking any more reservations," the hostess screeched above the din. "And we don't take names over the phone, so you'll just have to come in." Okay, I thought, a bit surprised—since when were the suburbs known for their crowds? "How long is the wait?" I asked. "About 45 minutes—but we have free ouzo shots, and the bar is hopping."

No kidding. The place was packed as tight as rice-filled grape leaves. It was easily the busiest restaurant I'd been to in months. As soon as I walked through the door, I felt like I could use a jigger of Greece's famous licorice liqueur, which was displayed as a self-serve setup on a table in the entryway (a police sting waiting to happen, if you ask me). I dodged a bar back pushing a cart of glassware out the front entrance and into the bar from a side door—there was no way he'd make it through the crowd. The line in front of the host's stand reminded me of those at Disney World, and from there we got a glimpse of the theatrics to come: A waitress nearby lit a plate of cheese on fire and shouted, Opah! "No sign of a recession here," my friend remarked.

Santorini is owned by members of the Nicklow family, the group behind the eponymous restaurant in Crystal, along with several other local dining establishments. The original Nicklow's is now closed, but the restaurant business is apparently doing well enough that the Nicklows wanted to move Santorini's from its longtime St. Louis Park location to develop a hotel on that site. Tony Nicklow, one of the three brothers who founded the first restaurant, opened the new Eden Prairie location with the help of his son John and nephew Christian. Although the new space, which is right off Prairie Center Drive and Highway 5, has already gone through three restaurants—Pickled Parrot, Bilimbi Bay, and Canyon Grille—in about twice as many years, the Nicklows were undeterred. With 40-plus years of restaurant experience, the family had established a popular following. (Christian says he discovered how well his last name was known the first time he was called into the principal's office.) And besides, Christian notes, the former St. Louis Park location had seen a lot of turnover before the Nicklows made it a success. "When other guys can't do it, you send in the Greeks," he jokes.

The Nicklows took several steps to make Santorini's stand out among the area's Applebee's and Ruby Tuesdays. The trees outside the restaurant twinkle with tiny blue lights, as if an overzealous holiday decorator had just returned from Las Vegas. (They are quite helpful in locating the restaurant among the chaotic roadways that pass as city planning in these parts. What kind of an address is 13000 Technology Drive, anyway?) The restaurant has a few Greek accents—a blue-and-white color scheme, pillars decorating the patio—but otherwise the dining room's neat, tasteful draperies, carpets, and hardwoods could fit right in at any of the surrounding new housing developments.

Most of the other longtime family-run Greek eateries in the Twin Cities—Christos, It's Greek to Me, Gardens of Salonica, and the like—present their fare in a rather homey, tranquil context. While Santorini's is certainly a family affair, it also feels like a place you might actually find on Santorini, the famously touristy party island. With its replicas of ancient Greek artifacts, nightclub atmosphere, and booze-fueled bar crowds hitting the dance floor, it's the My Big Fat Greek Wedding of local Greek restaurants—a fun-loving island vacation. Still, the place is hard to pigeonhole: In the same evening, you could converse with native Greek speakers, drink a black-pepper beer from a hip indie brewer, have your fortune read by a mystic, and get hit on by an electronic-components salesman who would tell you all about his new car ("It's got a GPS navigation system and a sweet stereo") and his favorite authors ("Kerouac's stuff is, like, fucking poetry").

When it comes to food, it's best to stick with a "when in Greece" approach, as the traditional fare is what Santorini's does best. The basic Greek salad, for example, contains the usual mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, feta, and olives laced with a creamy lemon-olive oil dressing, along with bits of dark purple beets and red cabbage—the sort of additions one would expect a Greek grandmother to make, but that other restaurateurs might have scrubbed from the dish so as not to offend timid American palates. An assortment of Mediterranean pita spreads includes those common enough to be found at mainstream supermarkets, as well as those that likely never will. Among the more familiar dips, I preferred the roasted red pepper hummus with chiles and feta to the roasted eggplant dip, or melitzano, with its harsh notes of raw garlic. The best spread I tried was one of the more unusual, a blend of red caviar, potatoes, and onions called taramosalata, which had the light, creamy texture of whipped butter and a briny finish.

All the appetizers may be ordered individually, but groups will likely prefer the sharable platters. The Greek Peasant Sampler, for example, is loaded with so much food that the servers must build up Madonna-like biceps after delivering a few. The platter offers several Greek-American greatest hits: a thick square of spinach pie, stuffed grape leaves topped with a bright lemon sauce, and thin slices of gyro meat with a side of tzatziki yogurt dip. It also includes a few lesser-known items, such as loukaniko, a spicy, fennel-tinged sausage, and a phyllo-wrapped pastichio, which is a bit like a portable moussaka. (It contains the same sweet-spicy ground lamb-and-beef mixture with a layer of pasta tubes and noodles to create a dense, protein-carb packet.)

An extra nine bucks adds a couple of petite lamb chops to the platter, and though they're small, they're certainly tasty, as the meat is marinated and cooked on a wood-fired grill to a tender, smoky deliciousness. (While we were discussing the chops on the phone, Christian excused himself for a second, and I heard him holler, "Hey, Mario, can you bring me a lamb appetizer?")

The chops were far better than the Saturday-night special of roasted leg of lamb stuffed with spinach, feta, and loukaniko sausage. I'd liked all its components when I'd eaten them as part of the sampler platter, but in this version the lamb meat was dry and bland—nothing like the chops—and the filling was so blah that the spinach might have been shredded newsprint for all the flavor it added. The other traditional dish I'd skip is the phyllo-topped custard on the dessert tray: Its texture was mealy, its sweetness was piercing, and the accompanying chocolate syrup had all the allure of Hershey's.

Still, among the vast selection of burgers, pizzas, pastas, strip steaks, and ahi tuna, I felt better about the Greek dishes that missed the mark than the American ones. Those I tried, a Greek pizza and a pasta special, weren't necessarily bad, just indistinct—the cheese-and-spinach stuffing in the ravioli tasting nearly the same as its pasta pouch.

The act of sharing good food always helps fuel festivities, so when Santorini's hits the mark, it feels like a welcome vacation from the area's ho-hum chain eateries. There's a reason the Nicklows' fans followed them out to the southwest suburbs—and it starts with an order of flaming cheese.