Located in the Colonnade Shopping Center on Bee Ridge Road is a relatively new Greek restaurant that I suspect will become one of my “go-to” spots for dinner on those nights I want tasty food, a calm atmosphere, and reasonable prices. Normally I can get that at home, but then there’s the cooking to do, and dishes to deal with, so Athens Family Restaurant will win the “where to eat” contest pretty much hands down . . . or should I say “hands off!” Trust me, they’ll take good care of you!
I met up with Mart for dinner last week, and he’d arrived ahead of me. A bottle of wine, two glasses, and a wine key were in front of him, which was a pleasant surprise. Athens Family Restaurant does not have a wine, beer or liquor license, but they do allow guests to bring in their own wine and don’t charge a corkage fee. Mart had stopped by his new favorite wine store, Seagrape Wine Company, and consulted with the owner to find a new Greek wine to accompany our upcoming meal. More about the wine later!
Athens Family Restaurant isn’t a big place . . . maybe 40 seats or so, but the interior is nicely updated in a modern, non-fussy way. That makes sense . . . you won’t feel uncomfortable bringing the entire family here! We arrived just before the dinner rush, so we got our server, Rachael, all to ourselves, and she was kind enough to share her favorites from the menu. On a side note, I have to compliment Rachael on the bang-up job she did pronouncing the names of the various dishes.
Athens Family Restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner featuring the classic Greek dishes many of us have come to love, such as Spanakopita, Kotopita, Moussaka, and Gyros (and fresh-made hummus, tzatziki and . . . ) With considerable respect to their guests, the owners, Chef Adel and Dina Elostta created a menu that does a great job describing each dish so those guests who aren’t familiar with Greek cooking will feel confident trying new things. That’s especially important for a family-style restaurant where parents can get a fussy eater to understand that the Bifteki Sandwich is simply a beef patty wrapped in warm pita bread. Fortunately, for those parents with super picky eaters, there are a number of American classics on the menu, (including hamburgers) so anyone unwilling to try something new can enjoy their meal while the rest of us experience one of Chef Adel’s Greek-inspired dishes . . . like the Bacon Lamb Burger that Chef Adel cooked on The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins & Dives, hosted by Guy Fieri!
Each night of the week Athens Family Restaurant offers a special dinner entrée. The night we went was a Wednesday, so I was bound to try the Soutzaoukakia special — described as Greek-style baked meatballs with grated onion, garlic, and a light tomato sauce. This dish was served with a side of rice pilaf and a side salad for under $15. Of course, I ordered Greek Salad as my side and enjoyed the crisp salad topped with feta cheese, Kalamata olives and Chef Adel’s homemade creamy feta dressing that was silky and light on the tongue. (He should bottle this up! I’d buy some!)
The Soutzaoukakia meatballs were nicely browned and flavorful, but more in the shape of a meat “finger” than a meatball! The rice pilaf was an ideal accompaniment, pairing so well with the slightly sweet nuance of the tomato sauce. We also ordered up a side of pita bread, which was a true delight, served freshly baked out of the oven. Rachael explained that the pita is shipped in par-baked and finishes baking in Athens Family Restaurant’s ovens. Slightly crispy on the outside, and luxuriously warm on the inside, this pita is much better than any you can order at a grocery store! Yum!
As mentioned previously, Mart had brought in a bottle of Naoussa Greek wine made from the Xinomavro grape. Resembling the tastes of a young Cotes du Rhone wine, Thomas at Seagrape did a great job with this suggestion. We sent a glass back to Chef Adel to try . . . he took a sip and gave it his thumbs up!
Mart was excited to hear that Lamb Shank was available that night, and placed an order of Chef Adel’s Lemon Potatoes to accompany it. Being that he’d read the description of the Horiatiki salad off the menu, he paid an additional $1.75 to upgrade his side salad to Horiatiki Salad.
Horiatiki Salad is similar to a Greek Salad, but there’s no lettuce. Instead, it’s made with the tomatoes, peppers, onions, cucumbers, Kalamata olives and topped with cubes of Feta Cheese seasoned with Greek herbs and olive oil. It’s very rustic in flavor and “exactly” the salad Mart had been hoping for.
The Lamb Shank was also “exactly” what Mart had been craving when choosing Athens Family Restaurant for dinner. Some Lamb Shanks resemble Fred Flintstone’s favorite meal – huge, expensive and downright intimidating. This Lamb Shank was more reasonable in size and is so reasonably priced there’s no reason to ever cook one at home again! ($15.99 for the lamb shank, soup or salad, and side dish!) The lamb was well seasoned and just fell off the bone – it was so tender! The lemon potatoes were nice as well, but the lemon could have taken a more aggressive step forward. . . there was just a hint of lemon there.
And since no visit to a Greek restaurant would be complete without one of their desserts, we couldn’t wait to try some of Chef’s baklava. Offering three different baklava – the classic walnut baklava, cashew baklava, and pistachio baklava – we wanted to try all three! Each order comes with two baklavas of your choice, so we placed two orders – one with a cashew and walnut baklava and one order featuring two pistachio baklava.
If you ask me, cashew is one of my favorite all-time favorite nuts. I’m that jerk that picks through the mixed nuts and takes out all the cashews, leaving the peanuts, walnuts and brazil nuts for everyone else. And trust me, cashews make for tasty baklava. However, I was surprised by how much I preferred the classic walnut baklava, while the pistachio baklava was Mart’s favorite. All three are baked in flakey phyllo dough and seasoned with cinnamon and honey. And all three were crispy, sticky and a bit messy! In other words . . . Perfect! At least as far as I’m concerned!
Looking back on it, I think the bottle of wine Mart brought to dinner almost cost the same as our two meals combined! So take the entire family!