A Local Look at Mediterranean Cuisine
“Lemon juice and olive oil. He put it on everything.” So said my friend Mike about his ex-girlfriend’s Greek father. Indeed, this seasoning duo infuses much of the
cuisine of Greece, along with that of other nations along the rim of the Mediterranean Sea. With a culinary tradition extending backwards through time for millennia, Greek cuisine has a wealth of history to draw upon. Aside from the lemon juice and olive oil, an array of herbs such as fragrant oregano, piney rosemary and brisk mint contribute to the spectrum of flavors. Honey takes center stage as a natural sweetener, combining with nuts to create healthy desserts, and aromatic spices such as cinnamon and clove find their way into savory dishes, lending an unfamiliar complexity to meats.
At Acropolis: the roasted chicken with a Greek salad in the background.
At Acropolis Cuisine (3841 Veterans Blvd.) in Metairie, Greek music plays on the stereo and seemingly requisite posters of Hellenic ruins adorn the walls. The restaurant is comforting and unassuming, qualities which put the focus on food and family. An appetizer of lightly battered, flash-fried calamari is tender and delicious. The accompanying marinara sauce is bright and flavorful, making what can be a heavy appetizer at other restaurants into something here that leaves you primed for more. A roasted garlic and potato soup is richer and more complex than it sounds, as the roasting takes the sharpness off the garlic, adding depth and a little sweetness to the soup. The six-onion soup, frequently offered as a special, is a good choice as well, and comes to the table garnished with a flaky pastry
crust atop the crockery.
For entrées, the roasted chicken is rubbed down with a coarse seasoning blend that includes rosemary and other herbs and then roasted to a hue of nutty brown. The skin is crispy and the meat stays tender and moist. The accompanying vegetables, often an afterthought at many restaurants, receive proper attention here. The zucchini, broccoli and baby carrots accompanying the half-chicken were grilled but not overdone, and seasoned with a tasty blend of spices. The menu also features some hybrid Italian/Greek dishes, including a selection of thick-crust, individual pizzas. The Mediterranean version featuring gyro meat, Feta cheese, Kalamata olives and marinara sauce is quite good and makes for a nice twist on traditional pizza.
While New Orleans does not have an abundance of Greek restaurants, despite the city’s popular and well-attended Greek Festival, elements of Greek cuisine make up part of the offerings in a broader scope of restaurants which feature a combination of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. Cleopatra Mediterranean Cuisine (2701 Manhattan Blvd., Harvey), located in a non-descript strip mall on the West Bank, is worth seeking out. Like many of the culinary finds on the West Bank, its unassuming location belies the quality of the food. The Cleopatra Special, an appetizer featuring hummus, falafel, kibby and dolmades is a great way to experience a spectrum of traditional preparations. The dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) are packed lightly with rice and separated individually by a slice of fresh lime, lending a bright citrusy note to each morsel, in addition to making for a more elegant presentation. The kibby is the best I’ve had in the city—well-seasoned orbs of ground meat hot out of the fryer and seasoned with an unusual assortment of spices including clove and cinnamon. Earthy pine nuts and pungent garlic keep the kibby grounded in the savory, though. The hummus is distinguished with a dollop of diced green chili in the requisite pool of olive oil, adding a touch of brio to go with the house-baked pita.
A house salad is perked up with the addition of walnuts and split cherry tomatoes. Dressed in light vinaigrette, it won’t fill you up. Among the entrée options, the lamb kabobs are recommended, as they come with a generous portion of tasty, lean cubes of lamb.
The relative newcomer Nile Café (3100 Magazine St.) features Mediterranean cuisine with an emphasis on Middle Eastern dishes. The pita, baked fresh on premises, is a highlight, and makes a great accompaniment for the baba ghanoush and hummus. The spinach pie—akin to Greek spanakopita—was good as well, the highlight being the light and flaky phyllo casing. A mini lamb pizza appetizer, basically a pita topped with ground lamb, Feta cheese and onion, was tasty as well, though a bit charred on the bottom. A peppery lentil soup was hearty and filling, arriving with steam wafting off it in waves. Kefta kabobs, seasoned rolls of ground lamb and beef, are cooked on the flattop and served alongside hummus dressed up with a squirt of Sriracha-like red chili sauce in the requisite pool of olive oil, contributing a fiery touch when scooped up with the warm pita.
A combination grocery store and deli, the Byblos Market (2020 Veterans Blvd., Metairie) offers a distinctive lunch option to residents and workers along Veterans Boulevard. The grocery itself is packed with a selection of goods difficult to find anywhere else. Items essential to Greek, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean
cooking, such as whole dried limes, rose water, orange blossom water and
pomegranate syrup, can be found here. For home cooks, these ingredients offer
up new and interesting ways to flavor teas and baked goods. Additionally, staple items like honey are available here in a wider assortment than would commonly
be found at a supermarket. The coolers also offer up perishables such as Feta
cheese, figs and dates.
Calamari at the Acropolis
The deli section is a popular place for lunch. The kibby had a thick crust, and the meat filling was studded with pine nuts. A cool yogurt and cucumber blend made for a refreshing dip. The spanakopita, triangular packets of spinach wrapped in a light and flaky phyllo pastry, were tasty as well. An assortment of candies near the cash register triggered my impulse-buying gene, and I wound up with chocolate halva, cashew crunch (a Lebanese treat made up of cashews bound with caramelized sugar) and a pistachio-sesame crunch bar. While such treats may not get the kids excited, for adults they make for a healthy alternative to the typical super-sweet candy bars.