Hummus, babaganoush, tzatziki, tabbouleh vegetarian platter

The Great Greek

0:00

If I want to eat vegetarian, and I usually do, I know I can always rely on restaurants with names like Arabesque or Oasis. So when I recently had a hankering for some hummus, I thought, “how can I go wrong with a place named: The Great Greek?” Located on a busy stretch of Ventura Blvd in Sherman Oaks, CA, with the name on a billboard, a giant blue awning, and stretched across the front of the building complete with dancing Zorba, it’s hard to miss.


I was there for a late lunch at 3 PM so the place was dead inside, but not outside. A cacophony of car, motorcycle, and bus noises illustrated the perils of being on Ventura Blvd and often overwhelmed the Greek muzak as the dominant background.

There are two dining areas, one is slightly nicer and further away from the street noise with booths, chairs, and white table cloths topped with paper to cut down on table cloth washing from spills.

The other area is a more laid-back sunroom with more of the Ventura Blvd “ambiance” and cream-and-milk-chocolate-checkerboard-faux-wicker-plastic chairs plus more paper-topped table cloths.

As expected, The Great Greek has lots of veggie options such as, tzatziki, hummus, Greek soups and salads, as well as non-veggie offerings, e.g. char-grilled baby octopus, moussaka, and kebabs made of various hoofed and clawed beasts i.e. beef, lamb, and chicken. As I considered the menu, my server brought me bread.

And oh, what delicious bread it was; served slightly warm with a crunchy crust and a soft-pleasingly-sour interior, accompanied by mildly flavored olive oil. Despite how good it was though, I wanted pita, not bread to dip in my Greek spread so I ordered pita for 2 which cost me an extra $2.45.

I would have preferred a smaller portion or even better, pita included with my meal instead of bread. Also, the pitas soft texture reminded me of processed white bread that can age on the counter with no signs of decay. It wasn’t bad, but I’ve had better.
My entree came with a soup or salad and while the Great Greek’s salad didn’t transport me back to Santorini, with romaine lettuce, a cardboardy tomato, red onions, green bell pepper, cucumber, feta, and a savory vinaigrette it didn’t need a taste bail out either.

I love having a lot of flavors in one meal so I ordered the veggie platter which was a tour of Greece with: stewed potatoes, Greek style rice, veggies, tzatziki, hummus, eggplant melizano-salata, tabbouleh, spinach cheese filo pie i.e. spanikopita, Greek fassolia beans, tomato and cucumber, and that Greek salad for $12.95.

The eggplant dip was deliciously soft and creamy, but needed more depth of flavor, which I can eek out of the dips I make by grilling or roasting the eggplant. The tzatziki was a study in perfection, rich and creamy with a distinct cucumber and onion taste, practically a meal in itself and a satisfying stand-in for cheese. The spanikopita was Greek comfort food with a dense, dark, rich, and soul-satisfying spinach taste, and a pleasingly tart twang from lemon juice.
Unfortunately the filo was soggy and the dish had an off taste from the cheese that reminded me of Kraft canned Parmesan. I know given the time from kitchen to table it would be impossible to make this dish to order but it would have been better if it were fresher. That’s what I get for eating lunch at 3.

Rounding out the plate; the lightly flavored cabbage in tomato broth was an interesting side but seemed more Eastern European than Greek; the rice was nice, light but with a flavor kick from the addition of stock; the fassolia beans were chalky at first bite then turned to creamy with a nice acidity from the tomato sauce; and the potatoes were big, nicely seasoned, and perfectly cooked but, even for a Carb lover like me, potato and rice seem like carb-overload. It would have been a more interesting and satisfying dish with a bigger portion of eggplant, hummus, tabbouleh or some falafel and dolmas instead.

If you find yourself with a hankering for hummus or any other GOOD Greek food, it’s worth stopping by The Great Greek, but if you’re looking for GREAT Greek food, I’d keep looking. I know I’m going to.
Great Greek on Urbanspoon

Read More

Fava Beans and beet greens salad

Peter Lowell’s

On a recent trip to Napa/Sonoma, Gail, my partner in wine, and I were on a hunt for the perfect pinot in the Russian River Valley. While we were excited to find beaucoup of Burgundy’s famous red grape in this fog shrouded area of Sonoma, we were equally happy to discover, with a search for “organic restaurants Sonoma” on the iPhone, organic Nirvana at Peter Lowell’s in the town of Sebastapol.

We had the option to wait for a table on the quaint and popular outside patio in the back of the restaurant surrounded by trees, a fountain, and unfortunately cars in the adjacent parking lot.

But since there were pinots waiting and our hunger wouldn’t, we opted for an available table inside which, with tan wooden chairs and tables, a red cement floor, and hanging industrial lighting and exposed ducts, sports a look of country chic meets urban industrial.

It also feels a bit like a European bistro, especially from the chalkboard over the kitchen which communicates the restaurants organic and seasonal convictions including what they are currently harvesting from their own farm.

Many years ago, on a Bay Area Backroads television shoot in Sebastapol, a local jokingly told me that the town was named as a mispronunciation of Zeebestapple because of the area’s storied history as an apple growing region. While many of those apple trees have been replaced by more lucrative vineyards and tract houses, the area still churns out some great organic eats as evidenced by the deli case overflowing with fixin’s for the perfect wine country picnic.

We started our lunch, as every good one should, with a delicious beer such as Gail’s Scrimshaw Pilsner from North Coast Brewing Co. and my hoppy muse: an IPA from Moonlight Brewery Co. in Sonoma. Both were $6 on draft.
The IPA had a great caramel color, a hoppy-rich-full-bodied mouth feel, a sparkling/effervescence, and a lingering earthy bitterness with a looooong finish. To sum up: It was delicious.

Peter Lowell’s menu states they have a “…slightly off-kilter attitude towards business – one where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” To paraphrase the Beach Boys, “I wish they all could be California Peter Lowell’s”

A great mantra was just the start of a menu chalked full of tempting dishes but the beans and greens salad sounded especially appetizing: braised beet greens, bread crumbs, garlic, chili flakes, Parmigiano Reggiano and fava beans.

The dish was an explosion of soul-satisfying-melt-in-your-mouth flavors with a nice ratio of creamy and chalky fava beans to crunchy, earthy, and bitter beet greens, with a pleasing background heat, nice garlic flavor and subtle saltiness. I almost wish it wasn’t so perfectly seasoned so I would have had an excuse to use the Himalayan sea salt and peppercorn dispensers on on our table.

After our salad, we ordered the pizza panna off the lunch specials menu: Roasted Spring Onions, Melted Leeks, Green Garlic, Cream, Calabrian Chiles, Fava Leaf Pesto and Parmigianno Reggianno for $16.

Typically I’m not a huge fan of cream sauces on my pizza however it was the perfect base for each Spring-garden-flavor-packed bite of: sweet and succulent leek, green onion, piquant Calabrian pepper oil and earthy green pesto.

Unlike some pizzas that suffer from cheese and dough overload, this pizza had just a highlight of cheese and a thin, charred, biscuity crust which was a great base for each flavorful bite.

I only have two complaints about Peter Lowell’s. The first is that we didn’t return for dinner to sample more of their menu and try their wines.

The second is that more restaurants don’t share Peter Lowell’s philosophy “…where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” It would be a tastier world if they did.

Peter Lowell’s
7385 Healdsburg Avenue
Sebastopol, CA
(707) 829-1077

Read More

Organic baby spinach salad

Seasons 52

I don’t like chain restaurants. They’re too often cavernous monuments to suburban disregard for land; havens for soulless corporate drinks rhyming with Smoka Smola and Crudweiser; and feature “themey” food that looks and sounds better than it can ever hope to taste. So it was with the theme of skepticism that I checked out a Seasons 52, perched in a giant mall parking lot in a suburban part of “suburbany” Orlando, Florida.

Normally the Seasons 52 sign would be beckoning to hungry Florida folk but I neglected to snap this photo until the sign had already been put to bed. From the outside, it’s an upscale and attractive building but about as unique looking as a PF Changs if the horse statues had galloped off. (Click the link to see what I mean). Despite this déjà Chu, I thought it was an inviting edifice outside and even though inside the dining room is cavernous, the appealing decor and soft warm lighting make it inviting too.
If a restaurant must have a theme, I can’t think of a better one than a seasonal menu, especially a seasonal vegetarian AND vegan menu.

But a menu is only as good as your servers ability to bring it to life and guide you to a better meal. And that’s exactly what I got in my server, Julian. Based on his recommendation, I started with an organic baby spinach salad for $6.90. The nice price.  The salad was fresh and filled with many layers of flavor: crisp red-skin pears, a nice bitterness from radicchio, creaminess from baby spinach, and a delicious sourness from Gorgonzola. And it was tossed with a baby bear portion of dressing: Not too little, not too much but juuuuust right. My only complaint is the cold and soggy pine nuts which had been sitting around too long in cold storage. If they had been toasted fresh to order instead, it would have added a nice crunch and temperature contrast to the cool salad.

The bread served with my salad was a wheaty masterpiece, hearty with a soft center contrasting with a grain coated crispy crust. As the conversation with Julian turned to wine, he turned to his General Manager, Reece, who happily discussed options and helped me navigate Seasons 52’s interesting wine menu with selections such as: Verdejo, Chenin Blanc and Moscato from interesting places such as: Veneto, South Africa and a Merlot from Slovenia.

I’d return to Seasons 52 fifty two times just to drink my way through their wine list but let’s be honest, the way I drink it would only take 3 or 4 visits. I began with a glass of Raats Family original Chenin Blanc Coastal ’10 $7.50/glass with a pour like I was friends with the bartender.

Usually $7.50 glasses of wine taste like an unoffensive yet only marginally interesting Trader Joe’s wine. Not this one. It had a nice complexity with lemon, grapefruit, pear, white flowers, wet grass and stones with a little earthy/dirtiness. The wine wasn’t the best pairing with the salad but the autumnal flavors of the salad did go decently with the earthy/dirty quality in the wine.

Too often restaurants serve their wines in thick rimmed cheap glasses with all the quality of a stemmed Dixie cup. My wine, however, came in an excellent thin rimmed wine glass from a European company called Stölzle Lausitz which enhanced the aromas, flavors and my enjoyment of the wine.

For my entree, I ordered the Farmers Market Vegetable Plate off the vegan menu which came with:

seasonal vegetables, grilled ponzu-glazed tofu and toasted cranberry-almond tabbouleh for $12.95. Another great price. Reece also encouraged me to try the harvest squash trio of grilled delicata, butternut and acorn squashes.
The Farmers Market Plate was big with more diversity than a Benetton ad: mushrooms, beets, carrots, red onion, asparagus, tofu and brussels (Bet you didn’t know the brussel is spelled with an s on the end) sprouts. The veggies were nicely prepared, slightly al dente, with a little firmness to them, except the yellow beets. They were a bit watery and the only miss on this dish. The squashes were also delicious.

It was a little like working with a whole fish when trying to separate flesh from the skin but each bite was a moist morsel of roasted sweetness. The almond tabbouleh had a nice crunch and grainy flavor with a firm texture and slight sweetness from the cranberries. The tofu was nicely firm and grilled with the tastes of sweet, salty and umami but
it would have been better with a crunchy cornmeal or breadcrumb coating outside to contrast with the soft chewy inside. Also, the ponzu glaze was pedestrian.

Two of the best items on the plate were the mushrooms which tasted meaty with a savory umami character and the carrots which were earthy with a hint of sweetness in the background.
Both the shrooms and carrots matched well with the reds Reece recommended I pit head to head. In this corner weighing in at $13.50, a 2009 Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and the challenger for from the Rioja region of Spain, a $9.50 Sierra Cantabria Crianza.

The Schug started light and fruity with high acidity, yielding to a beef jerky/salted meat animal character and a cigar box woodiness with a long finish that had a hint of liquorice. The Crianza smelled like a fresh barrel sample in an Indian restaurant and had a rich mouth feel with high alcohol. It wasn’t as well balanced as the Schug and would have been better paired with a meat dish than my plate of veggies.

If I have room, I always order dessert. If I don’t have room, I sometimes order dessert. Seasons 52 makes it easy to not only order one dessert but many, by serving what their aptly named “mini indulgences” for $2.50 each.

I present Chocolate Peanut butter mousse on the left and a seasonal offering of pumpkin pie with ginger snap crust on the right. And the winner is…

Chocolate peanut butter mouse which tasted like a moist peanut butter cake. The pumpkin pie was a nice seasonal attempt but a little too creamy and would have benefited from a higher cake to cream ratio.

I’m still not a fan of chain restaurants BUT Seasons 52 gets it right in so many ways that with their service, their wines, the quality of their food and their prices, they’ve made me a believer. And with a theme of seasonality you know each time you go, there’s going to be something new and fresh waiting for you to sink your teeth into and that’s a theme I can return to again and again.

Seasons 52
463 East Altamonte Drive
Altamonte Springs, FL
(407) 767-1252

Read More

Taco Temple Veggie Burrito

Taco Temple

I first heard about Taco Temple when I was filming The Winemakers in Paso Robles in 2007. Since then, I’ve made many pilgrimages to the Temple with offerings of an empty stomach and have always been rewarded with a satisfied soul. The place is legendary in the area but with its location in a nondescript parking lot East of Highway 1 on the Northern end of Morro Bay, it’s location is not. Neither is it’s shack-like appearance.

It also doesn’t look like much from the inside but has some fun decorations; brightly painted surfboards hanging from the ceiling that look like they belonged to a Maori surf club and eclectic Mexican tchotchkes and paintings decorating the walls and alcoves. It’s old school California beach culture but looks aren’t the reason to trek to the Temple.

The food is. And so is the wine and beer. Taco Temple offers affordable local wine and beer from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo including popular Firestone Walker Brewing Company. So, with all the local offerings what did I opt for? A $4 pint of Scrimshaw Pilsner on draught from North Coast Brewing in Fort Bragg – 400 miles away. I love draught beer and it sounded like the right beer for my lunch. It was.

Scrimshaw Pilsner tastes like the perfect beer to drink when you come in from the harvest or perhaps a tough day of whaling. It’s color is proof blonds have more fun. It has a medium body, a crispness highlighted by a touch of caramel sweetness and a sprightly finish with the lingering taste of grains; plus it was served American cold. I don’t share many American’s love affair with overly air conditioned indoor spaces and water glasses overflowing with ice cubes. But when it comes to beer, God Bless America. Nobody does it colder. Makes me feel sad for the rest.

It also makes me feel sad when Mexican restaurants charge for chips and salsa. Taco Temple does not. Their chips and salsa bar include freshly made chips with a few different salsas: A red piquante with a roasted flavor. Your typical pureed Mexican red sauce; tongue burning and sweat inducing. A pico de gallo which had a boring canned taste. It needed more cilantro, some onion and garlic, fresher tomatoes and some fresh jalapeños. Fortunately, they also offer fresh jalapeños by themselves which provided me with some ammo to perk up the pico. I give the Temple high marks for having fresh jalapeños at the bar and not using those disgusting pickled jalapeños from the can.

Taco Temple is renown for their fresh and local fish BUT as they say when haggling South of the border “es muy caro”; It is very expensive e.g. one fish taco for $16. I’ve had them before and they’re excellent but pricey so instead I opted for The Kind Veggie Burrito. A monstrous affair too big for one sane person; served in a sun-dried tomato tortilla slightly charred and served with dollops of guacamole and sour cream.

Under the hood, you’ll find a delicious salad of spring mix, tomatoes, rice, cheese, black beans, radishes and carrots. If you look around you’ll see many other plates with a similar accompaniment. They like using the spring mix. And I appreciate that it’s healthier than a lot of Mexican food with its characteristic gobs of cheese overflowing every nook.
However my burrito, like the salsas, was tasty but not mind blowing. The ingredients aren’t seasonal and you can taste they lack a freshness. Still, if you’re hungry and in the mood for good Mexican food in a casual kick-back atmosphere accompanied by a nice selection of beer and wine, Taco Temple is worth a trip.

Taco Temple
2680 Main Street  Morro Bay, CA 93442
(805) 772-4965

Read More

Cosmo's Pizza Gigantor

Cosmo’s Pizza

Boulder Vegetarian PizzaPizza Gigantor from Cosmo’s Pizza in Boulder Colorado. A 24″ monster with a price tag to match. For nearly $40 you too can have this half Veggie Supreme and half Greek veggie. According to Cosmo’s website, the toppings on the Veggie Supreme are: Green Pepper, Mushroom, Onion, Tomatoe & Black Olive AND the Greek Veggie has: Spinach, Sun Dried Tomatoe, Artichoke Heart & Feta Cheese. Save your money and ignore the hype you read on-line about Cosmos. It was probably written by drunk and stoned college kids from nearby CU. The size of the pie may impress but nearly all of the ingredients have that canned “food product” flavor you find when restaurants source from companies like Sysco. The black olives taste plastic, the artichoke hearts have no heart, sun-dried tomatoes are uninspired, cheese is plebeian and the tomatoes…well…they’re as good as the spelling of the person who wrote tomato with an e on their website. Dan Quayle would be proud – but I bet he wouldn’t like their pizza either.

Cosmos Pizza
659 30th Street
Boulder, CO
(303) 447-3278

Read More