I had a purely social lunch a few weeks ago -- by purely social I mean that I wasn't eating for this column and, therefore, could order anything I happened to want. It was a Greek restaurant, and what I wanted that day was moussaka, but lo, it had been dropped from the menu. That wasn't the only menu from which it has vanished -- one reason, I've been told, was an astronomical rise in the price of eggplant. But a number of other Greek favourites, which at one time had appeared on the occasional menu, have also disappeared.
There are countless self-described Greek restaurants in the city, but local Greek menus seem to contract rather than expand, and many of their repertoires are limited to such standards as souvlaki, Greek salad, calamari and gyros (either from a commercially prepared roast or simply grilled chicken in pita). Also, possibly, baklava, which may or may not be made in-house. A few others still offer such other specialties as spanakopita, lamb, hummus and -- if you're lucky -- taramasalata and Greek-style ribs.
But if you're looking for a wider choice of Greek foods, you'll have to do your eating at home, with purchases from the Greek Market. Of course many of the above standards also appear on the menu, but what I'd come for were for some harder-to-find items, including that elusive moussaka. And it was a marvel of layered eggplant, potatoes and ground beef in a light tomato sauce, topped by an ethereal cloud of nutmeg-scented bechamel. A single serving goes for $5.95, so big and so rich that, if you've been nibbling as well on some of the starters, dips and sides (most $1.50 to $5 for approximately 200 grams), it might easily serve two.
Another rarity is marinated octopus. It isn't listed on the market's website menu but is almost always available -- chunks of it in an oil-and-vinegar dressing, marvellously flavourful and pleasantly chewy (note: chewy is not synonymous with tough). Oddly, many people who will happily eat fried calamari are finicky about octopus, which is actually a relative. For them there's a nice change in the marinated calamari salad in a light lemony dressing -- with a less forceful flavour than the octopus (also less chewy), but which had ripened more interestingly when I got back to them a day or two later.
When skordalia did appear on past menus it was made with potatoes; this version uses bread, whipped into a paste with olive oil and vinegar and heady with garlic. Another simple but addictive favourite is the gigantic beans baked in a light tomato sauce.
There are several entrees that are ready for the grill, or simply for reheating, such as souvlaki, stuffed chicken breasts, house-made sausage of beef or lamb and meatballs in tomato sauce. To go with them, there are such sides as salads, lemon roasted potatoes and stuffed vegetables.
There are gorgeous-looking layer cakes, which are sold whole, and which I didn't try. But there are also smaller-portioned sweets, and the creamy, cinnamon-sprinkled rice pudding, the melt-on-the tongue kourabedes shortbreads and the syrup-drenched, walnut-studded honey cake are surely what the gods meant by ambrosia.
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Since the sad demise of Alycia's, I've been inundated with requests for alternate sources for perogies. Some readers have suggested their own candidates but since many of them were available only sporadically in church basements (or in their baba's kitchens) they weren't reviewable. Mom's perogies were recommended by more than one reader and they are always available, although they too are for take-out only.
The praise for Mom's turned out to be right on. The sight of perogies being made by a brigade of women (surely some of them babas) in an open kitchen was both comforting and promising, and they turned out to be delicious, with pastry that is silky and tender, if not exactly gossamer, and plumped up with tasty fillings. Not just potato and cheddar, but such other choices as cottage cheese, buckwheat, ground beef and sauerkraut, the last with or without mushrooms and/or bacon. Not to mention blueberries, cherries or plums ($4.95 to $5.95 a dozen).
There are a few other Ukrainian specialties. Perishky, for instance -- tiny baked buns filled (in my case, and rather skimpily) with buckwheat. Alternate fillings might be sauerkraut and mushroom; cheddar, onion and dill; cottage cheese and potato; ham and bacon, or any of the above fruits ($5.25 to $5.95 a dozen).
I thought I had ordered pelmeny, but when I got home I discovered I'd bought something called wushka (vushka seems to be the more usual spelling) -- little ear-shaped dumplings with a mushroom and onion stuffing. They are often served in a bowl with clear broth or borscht but are also delicious with just sour cream or melted butter.
And speaking of borscht, Mom's is a wonderful balance of sweet and sour. The cabbage soup is also delicious, but I can't report on the sauerkraut soup since they were out of it. They were also out of nalysniki (crepes rolled with cream and cottage cheeses), which need to be ordered in advance.
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