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Thursday, July 24, 1997

Ode to Greek

Posted on Thu, Jul 24, 1997 at 4:00 AM

I wasn't really expecting big things on my first visit to Athena Cafe. But then they started bringing out the wealth of Greek cuisine: humus, dolmans, moussaka, spanakopita. As I sampled my way from one dish to the next, I decided that in the next life, I'm going to ask to come back as a Greek. It really was that good.

Although my revelation at Athena was partly due to the vibrance and depth of Greek cuisine as a whole, it's mostly a tribute to the culinary skills of the Said (Sah-eed) family, who emigrated from the region to America 12 years ago, bringing along their favorite recipes.

Everything was delicious on the day I visited, but especially the dolmades ($3.50), which, translated from the Arabic, means "something stuffed." Marinated grape leaves were wrapped around fillings of rice, lean beef and onions. The deep green leaves were glassy and translucent, firm enough to bind yet giving easily to the bite. They were best when swished through the accompanying tzatziki sauce, a stiff mixture of sour cream, cucumber, garlic and parsley.

Hummus ($3.25) was almost enough for a meal. A warm, nutty spread of pureed chickpeas was smoothed across a small plate, moistened with olive oil and dusted with spices. On the side was a basket of pita bread, sliced into wedges. These you folded into halves, tucking them with dollops of hummus, diced tomatoes and onions.

Among the house specialties, moussaka ($3.75) was a full-flavored casserole that could almost be likened to lasagna. Layers of eggplant and sliced potatoes were baked with lean beef, feta cheese, onions and garlic. On top was creamy béchamel sauce, which had become firm from the baking.

Spanakopita ($3.75), more commonly known as spinach pie, was a hearty pastry, sliced into a generous rectangle and served warm. Dozens of layers of phyllo dough were stacked and baked in a batter of eggs, spinach, onions and feta cheese.

Warm, spicy and honey-sweet, the traditional baklava ($1.50) was worthy of a dining excursion in itself. Sheets of phyllo were stacked, soaked with butter and syrup, then layered with nuts and baked.

Athena Cafe isn't open for dinner, but its modest atmosphere is perfect for a casual breakfast or lunch. Popular for its breakfast gyros and Greek omelets in the $3 to $4 price range, this is a busy stop in the morning hours.

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