Present Imperfect

By Rebecca Cook

MEMORY IS A tricky thing. Each of us perceives life through the filters of education, experience and emotion. The end result can be hilariously disparate recollections of the same experience. If you don't know what I mean, check out a few of the reminiscences shared at your next family reunion.

Something similar has happened in my mind with El Greco's Greek Restaurant, which looms large in my repertoire of happy college memories but disappoints in the present.

Chow I fondly remember the food as well as the funky hole-in-the-wall ambience of the place--the brown picnic tables, constantly whirring ceiling fan and paper plates all contributed to the restaurant's charm.

In 1994, the university's ever-widening girth forced the restaurant to vacate its Park Avenue location and relocate.

Now ensconced near East Fort Lowell and Swan roads, and still owned by the Ptolemeos Kozambasis family, the restaurant formerly known as El Greco's is now called El Greco's Grecian Gardens. And the name isn't the only change--the restaurant is now bigger, fancier and more expensive, with an expanded menu. The food, as I remember it, has also changed, and not for the better.

My first visit began somewhat shakily when, after being seated with our drink orders promptly served, we were forgotten for the next 20 minutes. Finally a waitress appeared, apologizing there had been a mix-up about who was to take our table.

We began by ordering an appetizer portion of skordalia, a Greek dip made with pureed eggplant, lemon juice, olive oil and tons of garlic.

Served with wedges of pita bread that were light, fluffy and slightly sweet, the skordalia was a perfect beginning for a couple of hungry diners. Using the bread as though it were a trowel, we managed to scoop up the dip so completely it was difficult to tell there'd ever been anything on the plate. So far so good. This was the El Greco's of my bohemian youth.

The rest of the meal, however, proved to be a disappointing limp down memory lane.

The avgolemono soup, made with chicken stock, egg yolk, lemon juice and, in this case, rice pasta, was too viscous and bland without the tanginess usually imparted by citrus.

The Greek salad was an iceberg lettuce mix with a few slivered carrots and some red cabbage tossed in, as well as a wedge or two of tomato, green pepperoncini, a few kalamata olives and crumbled feta. The roughage came fairly drenched in a heavily oiled dressing that lacked the appropriate sparkle of citrus or vinegar.

pix My companion ordered the shish kebab made with beef and requested it medium rare. Although tender, flavorful and served with a crisply cooked assortment of green peppers and onions, the meat was done medium-well.

Cubed and seasoned roasted potatoes and a medley of zucchini, tomatoes and diced onion were served on the side of the entree. Accented with lemon and spices, the potatoes were tasty but slightly mushy, as were the other vegetables.

I ordered the pikilia, which was a combination plate selected by the chef. On this occasion the dish included a roasted lamb shank and vegetarian dolmades.

The lamb was served unadorned by sauce, spices or herbs. While looking a bit overdone, it was nevertheless moist, although slightly greasy and unexciting tastewise.

The dolmades were rather small and sad, consisting of grape leaves wrapped around about a teaspoon of rice filling and topped with a gloppier version of the avgolemono soup (sans rice pasta, thank goodness).

Imported grape leaves come packed in brine, and most recipes I've encountered insist the leaves be rinsed thoroughly before being stuffed. El Greco's grape leaves retained an intense briny flavor, which made the filling nearly irrelevant, especially considering how little there was of it. Potatoes and a vegetable medley accompanied this dish as well. Priced at $13.95 on the menu, I expected something more exceptional.

While less expensive, lunch is only slightly more appealing at El Greco's. The gyro sandwich, served on that delicious pita bread, came with great-tasting strips of lamb, cooked until slightly crisp on the outside but still tender and moist on the inside. The yogurt sauce it was served with, however, was devoid of any character. And so was the sandwich, which I remember as having so much onion and garlic "character" that it stayed with me for the rest of the afternoon. It was somewhat prosaic on this occasion.

The large wedge of spanakopita, a savory pie consisting of layers of phyllo dough, spinach, onions, eggs and feta, tasted as though it had been reheated in the microwave, leaving the usually flaky phyllo in a soggy and insipid state. A rice pasta dish, alarmingly similar in taste and appearance to Rice-a-Roni, was served on the side.

For dessert, we felt impelled to try the baklava, a traditional Greek pastry composed of several layers of butter-soaked phyllo dough, chopped nuts and spices. A lightly spiced honey syrup is poured over the warm pastry after baking. It's an intensely sweet experience, but no Greek meal seems complete without it.

El Greco's baklava is served warm, no doubt the result of a quick trip to the microwave. Again, this does not benefit the condition of the phyllo layers. Fairly umber with cinnamon, this baklava is more highly spiced than many other versions I've tried.

An ouzo spice cake was just adequate, with no outstanding attributes to recommend it. A rice pudding was also mediocre.

El Greco's has Greek and California wines available, but a word of warning to those unfamiliar with Greek wines: Retsina is a traditional Greek wine that has been resinated, that is, treated with pine-tree resin. The result is a sweet, turpentine-like flavor many consider to be strictly an acquired taste. For the uninitiated, domestic grape products might be the more prudent choice.

Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right about not being able to go home again. The haze of memory makes any visitation of the past risky, if not impossible. Too bad. I'll miss the El Greco's I once knew.

El Greco's Grecian Gardens. 4635 E. Fort Lowell Road. 325-7552. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sundays. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, CH. Menu items for lunch $1.95-$9.95, for dinner $3.25-$13.95. TW

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