To Sup with the Gods

Athens on Fourth Avenue brings Greek delights down from Mount Olympus to Tucsonans.

Tucson doesn't have a lot of Greek restaurants, yet Athens on Fourth Avenue has persevered over the years, quietly expanding and year after year earning Tucson's love and adoration by consistently being voted top Greek restaurant in the Best of Tucson.

And what's not to love? Greek culture alone holds its own allure with its complex and romanticized sense of history. Those outrageous Spartans; the noble Athenians; the poetry, music, philosophy, history. And let's not forget those great Greek gods--women and bulls and swans playing out the wide sweep of human emotions (jealousy, sex, sacrifice) in front of the backdrop of a mighty mountain. Greek myths are better than any soap opera, and Greek food slides right along on the scale of mythos: grapes and figs and olive oil and wine that will rot your teeth right down to its roots. Of course, a country's cuisine is a shallow representation of a culture, but it's a great place to start.

Athens on Fourth provides an opportunity to revel in outstanding, authentic fare in an airy and spacious venue for dining. Once a small, narrow building, the restaurant has quietly expanded into a lovely space in which there is a quiet and graceful feel. Tables are not placed too close to one another. Wooden floors polished to a high shine, lace curtains that just cover the windows and soothing Mediterranean colors create a peaceful and cheerful allure.

The sometimes-gritty street life outside on North Fourth Avenue feels worlds away when you're in Athens on Fourth.

The menu provides a solid selection. The servers we encountered were friendly, capable and certainly knowledgeable about the menu. Although the restaurant was full, we were greeted promptly and well taken care of. Our server was well versed in the items on the menu and was able to swiftly answer questions and make recommendations.

Among the aspects that make the food so appealing is the fresh quality of ingredients. On every plate, the bright, sun-drenched flavors of the Mediterranean are celebrated with little interference. Take, for example, the Pikilia ($7.95) the dolmades platter.

If you're a stranger to the seduction of dolmades, then this would be a good place to be inducted. Simple and addictive, these tender, marinated grape leaves, stuffed with a rice mixture, are refreshing. They present a tantalizing combination of lemony flavors, a bit of brine, and savory rice. The plate is rounded out with kefalotiri (a nutty flavored cheese), the tang of Kalamata olives, sweet, ripe tomatoes and a snappy cucumber. The simple flavors and textures remind us that simplest can truly sometimes be best. It would be possible to have this plate alone, and leave Athens completely satisfied, but we wanted to be sure, dear reader, you got a fair sampling of the menu.

The Gyro Appetizer ($7.75) promised to provide some heartier fare. Commonly served as a street food, and widely mistranslated, gyros often are built around some strange form of mystery meat that can be repulsive. Here, however, the lamb and beef were broiled to a crispy edge. Heaped up on a platter and served with pita bread, this appetizer could easily be an entrée. Chunks of feta cheese, fresh tomato, cucumber and olives all make great companions for stuffing into bits of pita. The tzatziki sauce, a light yogurt, lemon and chive concoction for dipping, added the right tart note to make this a great plate to nibble from.

Not to be missed is the Santorini seafood platter. Shrimp, cabrilla and mussels sautéed in olive oil, fresh tomatoes plenty of garlic and wine, make a heady plate served with rice. Surely the hand that turned out this dish is Olympian. The right balance of tomato, garlic and wine created a savory sauce to buoy up succulent chunks of cabrilla, tender mussels, and plump shrimp. This plate silenced the table; every drop was mopped up. Our server confided that this dish was so popular that on occasion the staff pools money together to get the chef to come on over and cook this dish for them.

If you like eggplant, then be sure to try the grilled version ($10.95) here. Voluptuous layers of eggplant, grilled until fluffy and savory, are swaddled in a rich tomato sauce. Suffused with cinnamon, this combination of flavors is unusual, but works well with the eggplant. Served with a rice pilaf, this dish would make any of your vegetarian friends a happy camper.

Truth be told, we were too stuffed to even think about dessert. We didn't want to be too hubristic or tempt the gods anymore than we already had. Everyone knows what happens if you fly too close to the sun. But there is always next time, and it's nice to know it isn't that hard to scale this version of Mount Olympus and sup with the gods.

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