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The Stuffed Grape Leaf January 20, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Taste World.

Don’t come to The Stuffed Grape Leaf to dance on the table. Or watch belly dancers gyrate. There’s no smashing of plates or pouring ouzo down your throat. The most dramatic event at the Fort Lauderdale restaurant on a recent Saturday night was the smoke detector going off each time the waiter lit the saganaki (flaming cheese), prompting a chorus of “Opa!”

But there are plenty of compelling reasons to visit this charming new Greek restaurant, most of all the wonderful food and cozy atmosphere. Owner Konstantinos Varsamis, born in Greece, raised in Montreal, has transformed this small nook, former home of popular Victoria Park restaurant, into an inviting estiatorio.

The walls are a thick white stucco, decorated with lovely reliefs. For fun, there’s one yellow or red chair, the rest are blue, at each of the 11 tables, with two more outside. Candlelight adds a touch of romance, but we’re seduced by the homey aromas of simmering garlic, oregano and rosemary and by the Greek hospitality.

Varsamis, who for years worked as a dishwasher and waiter, calls his eight-week-old restaurant ”a love affair.” Relationships should be this committed. He’s growing herbs and tomatoes just outside the door and is thrilled that his dad brought him bags of fresh oregano from Greece. Want a special dish prepared? Just call ahead, he urges patrons.

Varsamis says the menu is evolving, the goal more modern, higher-end Greek fare, but ”there’s no escaping grandma’s kitchen.” So you will find classics like spinach pie, souvlaki and lamp chops, and for starters, a delicious, complimentary hummus served with grilled, sliced bread drizzled with olive oil. The extensive appetizer list features other homemade spreads including the yogurt-based tzatziki or taramosalata, made with carp roe.

One of our favorite dishes here is the cool, crisp Greek salad or horiatiki, big enough to share. The traditional salad, made without lettuce, is a colorful array of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, Kalamata and throubes (wrinkled black olives) and red and green bell peppers dressed in a light vinaigrette with a dash of oregano, topped with a slab of ultra creamy Dodoni feta cheece.

We risked the smoke-detector blast and enjoyed the drama of the delicious flaming saganaki, the fire extinguished with a spritz of lemon. On an earlier visit, we liked the succulent mussels sautéed in a roasted red pepper sauce with a hint of ouzo, though a few of the shells were closed. We had to try the signature stuffed grape leaves, and these are quite good, packed with rice, ground beef and lamb spiked with dill and mint, topped with a creamy egg-lemon sauce.

The Greeks rule when it comes to lamb, and there are two fine choices here. An entree of roasted lamb is pretty hearty fare. The lamb shoulder and ribs are slowly cooked with wine and herbs, potatoes and carrots, and served, bones and all, in a pastry shell. If that’s too rustic, go for the juicy, grilled lamb chops, with a side of lemon potatoes,  a very good dish, though pricey.

Entrees include pork, steak and a delicious chicken souvlaki, the tender chunks of meat pulled off the skewer with peppers and onions, served with a fluffy rice pilaf. One of the more interesting sides: ”giant” (gigantes) lima beans braised in a garlicky tomato sauce, a fun sidekick to a simple baked grouper. Wild salmon is another sea-worthy dish, moist and nicely grilled.

Go beyond retsina and try one of the 20 moderately priced Greek wines along with 30 other choices. Your waiter can make a suggestion. As for service, it was well-paced a few weeks ago, but slowed down a bit Saturday night as the place filled up and only two servers handled the dining room.

For dessert, a housemade galatoboureko, phyllo wrapped around custard, is just so-so, but the baklava is rich with honey and walnuts. Add a cup of potent Greek coffee, made here in a Hovoli machine, which uses sand to heat the brew more evenly, another tradition Varsamis wants to keep.

The Stuffed Grape Leaf, 900 NE 20th Ave., Fort Lauderdale, Phone 954-764-6868

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