It’s pretty fair to say that we have been in Greek cuisine mourning since the Parthenon closed in Nashua. No fair! Why should we have to drive out of town and state to get a good Greek meal? Unless you’re lucky enough to have Greek relatives, which, sadly, we’re not. And don’t even get Mrs. Table for Two started about her countless failed attempts at making egg lemon soup at home. It just doesn’t work if you’re not Greek.
We know there are restaurants in town with some Greek items on their menus, but there are no Greek restaurants. So, when we found ourselves in Manchester after a recent Monarchs game, we walked over to The Athens on Central Street where it has been for the last 30 years.
Therein lies the funky charm of The Athens. It’s like the land time forgot. You walk in, and you swear you’ve made a quantum leap into the decade when Earth Day was launched, Elvis crashed and Sean Connery was the only James Bond you’d ever need.
Tables are layered with white then blue linen, evoking the colors of the Greek flag. An entire wall is given over to a hand-painted mural of the Parthenon, and the menu is edged with the telltale geometric Greek border. You can almost taste the ouzo when you walk through the front door.
Some of us remember when Athens actually had live Greek music and dancing on the weekends. While the sweet sound of the bouzouki now comes from the sound system instead of the stage, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all Greek to us, and we love it.
Even before we began to look at the menu, we knew warm slices of crusty Greek bread would be on its way to our table. We dug right in before we even ordered our glass of Creta Red ($5.25). You just can’t find this bread anywhere else. It has a distinct chewy texture on the inside and a specific thickness to the crust. There are no substitutes.
While buttering and chewing, we looked at the children’s menu, which instead of the typical offering of chicken tenders and grilled cheese that even ethnic restaurants seem to offer, included small versions of real Greek food. Choices include Greek Meatballs with Pasta ($6.25) and even Kids Roast Lamb with Rice ($7.95), allowing our fast-food fiends a chance to sample a cuisine that doesn’t come with a cheesy toy.
Mr. Table for Two was hungry and nostalgic for the old days when Sunday dinners sometimes meant a leg of lamb with that weird green jelly. He ordered the Greek Roast Leg of Lamb with Rice ($11.95), which blessedly did not come with mint jelly. Instead, it was marinated in Greek spices and slow roasted. The hefty stack of sliced meat was so tender you could cut it with a spoon, never mind a fork. And the equally impressive pile of rice was topped with the lamb-tomato gravy that you can only get at a real Greek restaurant or Uncle Spiro’s house.
Mrs. Table for Two didn’t have to look at the menu to know what she wanted. Her favorite meal in the world is a bowl of avgolemono, or egg lemon, soup, a Greek salad and, if she’s really hungry, a piece of spanokopita, or feta spinach pie layered between delicate filo dough.
Having downed almost a loaf of bread, she stuck to the soup ($3.25-$4.50) and Greek salad ($5.25 small, $6.25 large).
The egg lemon soup was perfection – a lemony, creamy soup thick with rice and egg. Nothing is better than this dish when it’s done right. It’s really the perfect food with citrus, carbohydrates and protein all in one magical vessel.
The salad was also spot on, with iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomato, chunks of feta (crumbles should be outlawed) and kalamata olives. Or, in this case, a kalamata olive. That’s the one complaint about the salad. It only had one Greek olive, the very essence of a culinary tease. We definitely needed and should have had more. Of course, the real earmark of a good Greek salad is the dressing, which should never, ever be that bottled creamy stuff, but instead, a combination of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar (or lemon juice) and oregano. This was just the way Athens did it.
The only thing we love as much as a Greek salad and egg lemon soup is a Greek dessert. We were torn between the Greek Style Rice Pudding ($3.25) and the Galactobouriko, or custard pastry, ($3.25). We went for the pudding just because it had been so long, and we didn’t regret it. It had that wonderful creamy texture and spicy edge that we love about Greek rice pudding.
It was hard to leave the Athens. We knew it would be a long time before we got back to a Greek restaurant, and it made us long for the good old days when you could stay in Nashua to satisfy your pastichio craving without having to wait once a year for the Greek Fair at St. Philip’s.
may the force be with you