19 Fifth St. NE, Minneapolis
Park free after 6 p.m. in bank lot across the street
Closed Sun. - Mon.
Opa! That’s the capsule review.
OK, I’m biased. I love Greek food in general because it’s based on simple, abundant and non-costly ingredients rather than a mystique of intricate procedures and complicated sauces. And, here in the frozen tundra, where the sun and sand of the blue Aegean is painfully absent, a couple of tavernas stand out.
Gardens of Salonica has been oh-so-satisfying from the outset and only gets better as the years tick by. Named for a bustling city—Thessaloniki, aka Salonica—in Northeast Greece, it’s become a mainstay of Northeast Minneapolis, certainly a striking parallel. So it’s a bit colder here; it’s equally strong in what the Greeks do best: hospitality (well, along with writing tragedies about marrying your mother).In fact, the little tin-ceilinged storefront has proved so well-received by the penniless but talent-rich arts crowd that hangs out here, and all the others who also got the memo, that a few years back a second room was added with a scattering of tables on its blond wood floor, overseen by a couple of contempo artworks on the otherwise-bare walls. Waiters in shirts of Grecian blue look like stand-ins for all that statuary in museums; they share their opinions with gregarious abandon, and you’ll be glad they did.
A dozen cold apps ($4-6 range, or combo of three for $9) lead the list—the kind of deli starters that are prepared and waiting, so within mere minutes, just after you’ve had your first sip of Retsina (more on that later), you’re ready to eat.
Although I scan the list each visit, as if I’ll actually change my mind and veer from my established favorites, I always end up with the same selection, leading off with tzatziki, that addictive spread of thick, rich homemade yogurt, grated cukes and lots of garlic. I mean, LOTS of garlic. (The skordalia is just as garlic-intense: a scoop of mashed potatoes as conduit for the aromatic bulb, stirred together with olive oil and a spritz of lemon.)
Melitzana spotlights another Greek staple, and object of my adoration, eggplant. Here, the roasted slices have been pureed along with more olive oil (the third member of the Greek trinity) and subtle seasonings. Don’t miss the aginares, either—chilled artichoke hearts bathed in yet more olive oil, more lemon, more garlic—well, you get the idea ... All apps and entrées come with warm rounds of pita.
A lovely Greek salad (or choose soup) comes with each entrée—and, trust me, it’s better, more refined than those of the homeland. Lettuce is sliced into slim, green ribbons, then tossed with cucumbers, tomatoes, dark, pungent olives and savory chunks of feta. But the dressing is lighter, more adept than the blast of vinegar more common in Greece.
Lamb is the order of the day here—no sirloin of beef, no safe-choice chicken— along with cod in a savory wine/tomato sauce (and garlic. Honk if you love garlic!). Plus, of course, skewers of souvlaki and gyros sandwiches, both $8.
Back to the lamb: Choose sliced leg of lamb with oven-roasted potatoes; the braised meat served atop orzo pasta in red sauce; or several nightly specials, including our choice—a huge platter of savory braised chunks mingled with artichokes in a sharp, bright lemon gravy. Whatever’s the Greek word for “superlative,” it applies here.
We also split an order of moussaka, that favorite hot dish, here composed (as it should be) of layers of baked eggplant (not the cheap potato filling others often use) generously topped with ground beef—pasture-fed, all-natural, the menu indicates—abundantly seasoned with nutmeg (an overdose, to be exact), then crowned with a good, thick inch of béchamel and baked till that creamy crust turns golden. Again, more than enough to share for $12. It’s also available in a vegetarian version, along with other swell veggie choices, including stuffed grape leaves and a handful of stuffed phyllo options, ranging from spinach/feta (my personal fave) to mushroom/cheese, leek/lemon and sweet pepper/feta, all $4.
We didn’t need dessert (Who actually “needs” what we all want?) but ordered it anyway in the line of duty (well, that’s my excuse).
All housemade pastries run around $3 and most involve phyllo, usually soaked in a sweet honey syrup. We split the baklava (“When I go to the bank across the street, they won’t let me in unless I’m bringing baklava,” our waiter told us). It’s not as cloying as most, and perhaps favors the pastry wrapping over the filling more than some versions, but that filling is swell: chopped almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts beneath that wrapper, the whole little package bathed in light syrup flavored, also, with orange peel and cinnamon. Fresh figs poached in red wine also were available (they’re seasonal), as was the addictive, cinnamon-laced rice pudding and several chocolate options.
Greek coffee—a thimbleful in a demitasse cup—makes the perfect finale.
And now, back to the wine. When I first met Retsina, it was definitely an acquired taste—so strongly related to pine resin that it seemed medicinal, or something with which to remove spots from your car. But it’s come of age, lighter and more skillfully crafted, and several labels are available here, along with a nice selection of other Greek wines, several at user-friendly price tags under $20. Opa to that, too!