Agean Cafe in Laguna Beach: Opa!!!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Probably my favorite type of dining experience is one where the food is incredible, the wine keeps coming without my even having to ask for it, because I'm far too busy dancing to a live band playing some sort of ethnic music.

Cue Aegean Cafe in Laguna Beach. Somewhat of a landmark at this point, both Greeks and non-Greeks alike flock to this seaside oasis of excellent food and a small slice of authenticity, however "Americanized" it can be. Yes, that's an oxymoron of sorts, but please allow me to explain.

Greece, being a collection of islands, pretty much specializes in three things in terms of food: fish, lamb, and olive oil. Far too often Greek restaurants feel the need to "dumb it down" for the Americans, and forgo their seafood superiority and instead supplement with The Kabob. Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy myself a good kabob every now and then too -- but it by no means is the definitive dish of Greece. By a longshot. They excel in seafood, and frankly make the only octopus I will ever eat. Shellfish of every kind, whole fish basted in lemon juice and the freshest of olive oils with tender fresh herbs like oregano and thyme, delicate sheets of the famous phyllo dough (and incidentally, one of my favorite ingredients of all time) that houses a formidable yet elegantly restrained spinach or cheese mixture as in spanikopita. Add some crisp white wine or a cold Greek beer, or even better, shot after shot of the licorice-laced Ouzo (the Greek national drink), and you've got yourself a feast of the ages.


The think I love about Greek food is that it remains unchanged for centuries. Of course with the conquering of various nations like the Ottomans brought over some influence, the resulting combination has produced one of my favorite cuisines - Mediterranean. But although the cuisine is perfect enough, it's difficult to find a restaurant in this country to execute it properly and authentically. Of course some of the seafood is limited because of the area. I can see how it would be difficult to import various seafood in...say...Kanasa, for example. And given our American culture is Meat Centered, I can see how The Kabob became a staple. But, occasionally, one will find a gem like Agean Cafe in Laguna Beach that offers both authentic and more importantly properly prepared Greek food. Is it completely and totally authentic? Depends on how you define "authentic": yes in terms of offering other stuff like octopus, and they do have the traditional things like spanikopita; no because they still highlight The Kabob. Sigh.

Almost just as important to a real Greek restaurant is the atmosphere. What I loved instantly is that they have a live band that plays Greek music. It is loud though, so if you're going for a romantic dinner and deep conversation, you might want to be seated in the far periphery of the restaurant. They also offer live entertainment which comes in 2 forms. The first, is the now proverbial Belly Dancers, and the second is getting up yourself and dancing.

When we went, the usual belly dancer who also teaches a belly dancing class had her students perform live as part of their last class "final exam:"

Although it was cute and sweet to watch all these white women who clearly had no idea what they were doing (yes, I'm a ethnic snob when it comes to this sort of thing), they had a great time and it was infectious.

However, I personally was annoyed at the constant barrage of belly dancing, which by the way, isn't even really Greek!!!! It's Arabic - that would be another one of those cross-over influences from the Ottoman occupation - and unfortunately Americans have learned Greek restaurants are synonymous with belly dancing. Frankly, so are Romanian restaurants for that matter, and I'm still trying to figure that one out!

I couldn't stomach it any longer, that this band was playing such beautiful folk music, and the people were getting up and doing their best impression of belly dancing. So I got up and began a "hora" - a traditional Greek group dance. My Greek friend Katia taught me back in college some of the basic dances, and when it comes to stuff like this, I remember it...even 10 years later! Plus, Romanian dancing is an extremely simpler version of it as well. And wouldn't you know it, I drew out the real Greeks and we made a show ourselves:

That would be me next to the girl in the white pants. :) It was a huge compliment to have Greeks come up to me to thank me for starting the real Greek dancing. I felt it only right.

Even I needed a break from all that dancing and let the professional belly dancer (who by now was shooting me daggers since I sort of stole her belly dancing "moment" apparently) take center stage to do her best impersonation of the ancient dance form:

...while I ate and drank some more.
Among the food we sampled that night, we ate the extremely tasty Saganaki:

This is their famous "flaming cheese" dish. A large piece of cheese is doused in brandy and then set ablaze at your table in front of your very eyes. It's both spectacle and with purpose, as the brandy when lit really caramelizes that cheese at the same time of melting it, and the result is goodness. If you go here, this appetizer is an absolute must.
We also very much enjoyed the Garides Saganaki:

This was shrimp baked in a tomato and feta sauce flamed with ouzo. It was by far my favorite of the evening. The shrimp were very tender, and the sauce was tart and sweet from the tomato while the feta added a delicate saltiness to the taste and creaminess to the texture. It was a dish that was very pleasing to the palate.
We also had the Octopodi:

Like I said before, I think the Greeks make octopus the best. The octopus is charbroiled (not grilled), so it picks up that distinct bbq flavor and smokiness that really transcends the dish. It's drizzled with a very simple marinade sauce common in Greek cooking - lemon juice, olive oil and herbs - while the octopus is fresh off the grill and still hot, so that it can immediately soak up those flavors. The dish was served with a simple and appropriate accompaniment of tomatoes, red onion, olives and pepperoncinis. If octopus makes you squeamish, you'll love this one. It's really worth a try.

And what is Greek food without fresh pita bread!:

Overall Aegean Cafe offers both excellent food and a great atmosphere. The price range is on the more expensive side, and frankly they take advantage of being "ethnic" and the only real Greek restaurant in town. In other words, it's not that hard to bake off shrimp in tomato puree and feta cheese, but I'm not going to clean my own octopus or light cheese on fire in my kitchen anytime soon. So for me, it's worth the money.
Full bar, and a great view of the ocean. We went at night so we couldn't take advantage of the incredible view, but a sunset dinner this summer is sure to be in order. This place is extremely popular, so reservations are very strongly encouraged. Don't be shocked, though, if you're still waiting a good half hour even if you have reservations like we did. They will seat you very promptly, and even offer you a complimentary glass of wine or piece of spanikopita while you wait. And that in of itself is why I love this restaurant - it goes back to the real Greek attitude and wanting to please and for everyone to be happy and comfortable.
And now for some facts:
Open: Mon & Tues closed; Wed-Sun open 5 pm; Sat & Sun 11:30 am for lunch
Reservations: strongly recommended
Kid Friendly: not really, but maybe if you go early evening then probably ok
Vegetarian Friendly: yes
Price Range: appetizers $11-$17; main $16-30;
Full Bar: with imported wines and beer from Greece; get the Ouzo!

Easy Spanikopita

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

There are a few things in life that are just perfect. For me, one of those things is phyllo dough. It's flaky, it's buttery, it can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. It can be an appetizer, a main or a dessert. The possibilities are quite literally endless.
One of my favorite things to make with phyllo dough, however, is spanikopita. Greek for "spinach pie," it is traditionally made in a pie form, but can also be made in these easy-to-eat triangle shapes using phyllo dough as well.
This is my super simple and quick recipe for a perfect appetizer or cocktail party munchie.
Easy Spanikopita
1 box frozen chopped spinach - thawed completely
1/2 cup finely chopped white onion
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese*
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1 package phyllo dough, defrosted overnight in the refridgerator
1 stick butter melted, plus 1 tbsp - divided
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Line a baking dish with parchment paper.
Using a fine strainer, press out all the water from the defrosted spinach. Gather into a ball and using a couple of sheets of paper towel or a kitchen towel, pat out any more remaining water. It is crucial to take out as much moister from the spinach so you do not make the spanikopita soggy. Once drained, place spinach in a mixing bowl.
Heat a pan and melt the tablespoon of butter. On low heat, saute the onions until just beginning to become transulence and tender - about 5-8 minutes. Do not caramelize! Add the garlic and saute 30 seconds until fragrant. Poor onto spinach and let cool to room temperature. Once cooled, add the salt and pepper to taste**, thyme, oregano, eggs and feta cheese. Mix well, making sure all ingredients are incorporated.
Open one package of phyllo dough. Very carefully roll out the gentle sheets, making sure not to rip any of them. Cover the top sheet lightly with a damp towel or paper towel to keep the sheets from drying. On an appropriate working surface (cutting board, marble board or clean kitchen counter top), gently place one sheet of phyllo dough and very carefully but quickly brush it with the melted butter. Lay another sheet of phyllo dough on top of that, and brush the top of that layer with melted butter. Add a third layer of phyllo and brush once more with butter. Cut the phyllo in half, length-wise, creating two strips to work with.
Take about a full teaspoon of the spinach mixture and place it in the bottom-left corner of the phyllo strip. Repeat with the other strip. Don't forget to cover the rest of the phyllo dough pile with the damn towel so it doesn't dry out! Then very gently, fold the bottom left corner to meet the other side of the strip, creating a triangle shape. Then take the bottom right corner of the triangle and meet it directly up to the side of the phyllo, making another trianlge. This process is exactly the same as folding a flag. Continue doing this until you reach the end of the the phyllo dough. You should have an even triangle. If you do not, trim off any exess phyllo to make a clean, uniform triangle. Brush the bottom of the triangle with butter where you "seal" it with the final fold to ensure it won't open during cooking. Set aside on your baking sheet.
Repeat this process with the other strip, then remaining phyllo dough.
Once your triangles are made, brush the tops with more melted butter. At this point, if you choose you can freeze them. To do this, place them in a ziploc freezer bag, gently and trying not to overlap them. You may need to use several bags to ensure the dough doesn't stick together or break after you freeze them. They can stay frozen for up to 6 months.***
If making now, place in oven and cook for approximately 25-30 minutes, or until the edges are golden brown. Remove and serve hot or at room temperature.
*I use Valbreso feta cheese (French) because it has a milder flavor.
**The amount of salt used will depend on what feta cheese you use, as some can be quite salty. Taste your cheese before you add it in the mixture and adjust salt accordingly.
***If using previously frozen spanikopitas, take out of freezer bag and place directly on baking sheet. No need to defrost before baking, but may have to increase cooking time depending on your oven!

Elat Chicken Soup

My good friend Cindy shared this recipe with me and although I haven't actually made it yet (plan to do so soon!), it sounds wonderful.

Elat Chicken Soup

You need:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 quarts low-sodium chicken stock
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 potato, peeled and diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 medium eggplant, diced
3 tablespoons fresh dill leaves, minced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, minced
1 English cucumber, diced

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. In a smallmixing bowl, combine cumin, coriander, turmeric, allspice, salt, and pepper;mix well. Season chicken with about 1/2 of the mixture (save remaining1/2). Add chicken to pot and cook for 3 minutes per side. Transfer chickento a plate. Pour off any fat from the pot. Add another tablespoon oil topot; add onion and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add garlicand remaining spice mixture and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally.Add chicken stock, chickpeas, potato, carrot, eggplant, dill, and 1/4 cupcilantro to pot; return chicken to pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat tosimmer and cook for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes. Add in cucumber. Season,to taste, with salt and pepper. Chop up chicken. Sprinkle soup withremaining cilantro leaves.

Makes 6-8 servings.