Greek in North

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    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.

    The Greek island of Mykonos is located in the Aegean Sea. Its curving streets -- designed to confuse attacking pirates in the 16th century -- are today lined with restaurants that helped define it as a vacation mecca. Now a slice of Mykonos has come to us in the form of Mayerion Mykonos, a small, pumped-up bistro in Longwood, owned and operated by Dimitrios Salivaras. The menu offers generations of family recipes from the old country.

    We were greeted at the door by a chipper gentleman who told us in a thick Mediterranean accent that his name was Nick, and that he was born in Greece in 1924 -- all before offering us complimentary glasses of dry, red wine while we waited for a table. Waits are typical here; the restaurant seats just 65. But the narrow space has been creatively transformed with high, beamed ceilings and stunning Mediterranean art. The bustling, open-air kitchen -- the "mayerion" -- adds excitement. Just about everyone gets to watch and listen as chefs whip up a fast-paced production of flavors, aromas and textures.

    We started with melitzanosalata ($4.95), a glistening spread of chunky roasted eggplant blended with red wine and olive oil, and liberally anointed with garlic. While we loved it, we wished there was something to pair it with other than thick-sliced whole-grain bread. Pita wedges would have been more appropriate.

    Much more impressive was thallasina skaras ($14.95), a succulent, smoky flavored charbroiled trio of shrimp, octopus and calamari, finished with a crisp lemon vinaigrette.

    Although there are plenty of ethnic traditions, such as moussaka, on the menu, it's a good idea to explore the daily specials, sometimes tweaked slightly to accent the freshest available ingredients. "Grouper Mykonos" ($16.95) is not to be missed: The 14-ounce fillet of domestic black grouper was topped with a luscious melange of tomatoes, caramelized onions, celery, white wine and fresh herbs. Feta cheese was crumbled on top, and the fillet was broiled to a golden brown. Another attraction: a thick salmon fillet wrapped in layers of phyllo pastry ($16.95), baked to a delicate crisp and topped by mild sauce of lemon, dill and white wine with a hint of chopped onions.

    Our expedition culminated with a complimentary treat: The waiter brought out a plate of fresh apple wedges drizzled with honey and cinnamon. It was surprising that something so simple could be so elegant and delicious -- the key was in the sun-ripened apples. In comparison, it was an off night for the soggy baklava ($1.50).

    Throughout dinner, there was total attention and concern from the wait staff. Everything we ordered came in such generous portions that our to-go boxes quickly stacked up. But not to worry. This food did not go to waste.

    You no longer have to spend the exorbitant cash to “eat around the world” at Epcot. Urban Café in Lake Mary is a poster child for international cuisine, boasting “Grecian Café” on their sign and screaming “AMERICAN BREAKFAST” in neon letters in their storefront window. And it doesn’t stop there – not only are Europe and North America represented at Urban Café, but South America, too. The first page of the menu is a list of classic Peruvian dishes: lemony ceviche ($9.99) and arroz chaufa (Peruvian fried rice with chicken, $9.99) to name a few.

    The juxtaposition of these three nationalities may seem strange at first, but Urban Café pulls off each with international flair and respect for differences of culture. The gyro sandwich ($7.29), whose spicy beef-and-lamb strips unfortunately came swimming in tangy tzatziki sauce, is served with a side. Advice: Pass up the Lay’s and order potato salad. Chunks of potato are bathed with the traditional mayonnaise mixture, but the addition of fresh Greek oregano makes the usually-predictable dish a surprising treat. On the other side of the Atlantic, the seco de carne (literally “dry soup,” chunks of meltingly tender braised beef with potatoes and carrots in aromatic gravy; $9.99), was perfection, with lingering notes of cilantro and spice.

    You can’t go wrong at Urban Café, unless you show up after 3 p.m., when the tiny restaurant has closed for the day. Whether you order two eggs over easy with bacon and toast ($5.75), the refreshing spinach melt pita ($7.29) or a pineapple-flavored Inca Kola ($1.99), Urban Café delivers a multicultural breath of fresh air.

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