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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Crepes 'n Crepes: The Theory of Simplicity

My argument: plain doesn’t preclude packing with flavor.

It reminds me of a high school classmate’s overly done yearbook quote –compliments to Einstein, “simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Exhibit A:
On a roomy flight back to VT, I sit a seat over from the once chef to Jacob Javits (former Senator of New York).  We discuss cooking; he props his elbow on the armrest, leans in toward me, and with an air of gravity –as if he’s about to divulge the arcane whereabouts of the lost Arc –says, “The secret is that there isn’t a secret –you just have to use quality ingredients…really, you only have to use a lot of spices if you’re covering up shitty ingredients.  It’s that simple.”  His grey hair weaved with a slow southern drawl (sans southern accent) all sketched a halo of wisdom around his wizened visage –I take his words at face value. 

And like the crepe, the idea of ‘cover up’ is an easy one to grasp: when quality ingredients are used, there’s nothing to hide. Take milk chocolate for example –without being force-fed sugar, have you ever wondered how the low-grade cocoa would fare?  Pas très bien.

Soft and flimsy: pliant and resilient, the brindled coat (a choice of either buckwheat or whole) blankets the inner beauty of my smoked Salmon doused in a velvety lemon sauce (‘Saumon Fume Avec Sauce Au Citron,’ it’s called); in a sense, it has nothing to cover up.  Nor does the Crepe de Camembert (a creamy surface-ripened cheese made from cow’s milk) or the Crepe de Roquefort –made specifically from the red Lacaune ewe (a type of mature female sheep) because Crepes ‘n Crepes –a restaurant tucked into Cherry Creek North (two years ago they opened the doors at another location in Writers Square) –imports each of these cheeses from France.  Although the original techniques of cultivating Camembert have aged (when the Norman village first presented it to Napoleon, the cheese was ripened strictly from unpasteurized milk –modern cheesemakers, however, tend to use pasteurized milk for safety reasons), Roquefort still maintains strict regulations.  Unlike Camembert, any cheese bearing the label Roquefort must naturally mature for a minimum of four months in the caves of this French village in the Midi-Pyrénées –a rule that has held since legislated by King Charles VI in 1411.

And sometimes, with these rare and ripened ingredients, the tastiest of dishes can be whipped up in the flattest of things, fraught with flavor and simplicity.

I use flat in the literal sense because the largesse of crepes leaves a lot of room for taste; coincidentally, the restaurant demonstrates that French cuisine can also cater kindly to the heart.  And as the crepe is brimmed, buckled, and baked all within minutes, in its upcoming edition, the OED might have to redefine fast food.

But French and fast food don’t go hand in hand.  To quell any notions that this restaurant isn’t fully French, tout au contraire, I ask that you peruse the walls sponged in a musty cumin, matting the plentitude of imported French prints; gander at the table cloths shipped from the Southern French region of Provence; order a beer, French is all they have –between the Kronenberg and 1664, I opt for the latter…honestly, get your beer somewhere else, France is known for its food and wine not its beer and in this case, it’s a pity that the eatery maintains France fidelity.  It’s also a pity that the barmy Belgian beverage never trickled down to its Southern neighbor.  And of course, a list of French wines is available (it can be viewed on their website:  And if all that hasn’t quenched your skepticism, have a conversation with the French owner Alain Veratti and his wife, Kathy.

As you leave, a waitress might holler, “bon soir,” in a seemingly pinchbeck manner.  Accept it as an effort at milieu and not as a basis to impugn the pukka of this French dinette.  “Au revoir,” I reply as I scoot outside into the celestial streetlights of Cherry Creek.  In the end, the only thing you will find lacking in a “Euro” feel is the comity.

CnC (for brevity’s sake, adopting as acronym) is a place where the utility of hand supplants the sharpness of knife and –well…you can probably pitch the fork; where the frills of finger food connote something more filling than foofaraw manhandled by the cook; where the freedom to fiddle with your own food trumps tawdry décor.

And that, commingled with the helter-skelter of happy hour hunters (at $4/crepe it’s understandable) are the only attributes uncivilized about this creperie.  Strike that: if you’re Mormon, the armoire of alcohol –the restaurant touts a full bar –behind the counter might also tally a foul ball.

But the full bar is just another example of where choice abounds: two others are the menu –albeit penned excessively in French, subtitled in English –and the choice of seating.  The restaurant solicits nearly forty crepes, two soups (a soup de jour and a four season French onion), and three salad plates.  You can sit in the main dining area, the sun room, or at the counter (as children freckle the stools, it can’t really be called a bar) where you can watch your crepe come to fruition on one of four French imported iron griddles.  And I haven’t even brushed on the creperie’s caffeinated beverages, all of which seem to receive warm praise.  But I wouldn’t dare to call it a coffee shop because it’s so much more and such titles connote a hungover hangout; in the end, it’s not that you couldn’t bring a girl here the morning after, it’s just that you could’ve brought her here the night before as well.

I continue with my smoked salmon dish.  It tastes delicious: the marriage of salmon with thickened sauce brightened by the zest of lemon is astutely rich and flavorful, chewy, moist, and crunchless  –the smokiness adds a savory and complimentary component.  The nuttiness of the buckwheat catches the lacquer but somehow evades sogginess.  Satisfying?  Indeed, it challenges me; in size, it falls somewhere between Apollo Anton Ohno’s quad and his calf.

But when weeks later, I return to CnC –this time for happy hour –it seems like a prejudice slighted at money savers: the bolster that once tautly bundled the contents, appears loose and flaccid; the ratatouille I order, avec roasted eggplant, oignon, zucchini, red pepper et tomates, is good no doubt, it’s just that it’s served in such dinky proportions.  The Gourmet Cookbook assembled by Ruth Reichl, former food writer for the New York Times, contains the best recipe I have found for ratatouille.  In the recipe, each vegetable is chopped and sautéed separately infusing the final dish with a lasting marriage of interdependence.  CnC’s ratatouille is not that; instead, it’s most likely ingredients, albeit fresh, wokked together.  The second crepe I order, the Spinach and Feta, comes in the same minimalist fashion. 

Two jars infallibly accompany all crepes: pesto and a roasted red pepper purée –with eggplant –from Bulgaria.  The pesto, processed in the restaurant, consists of pecans, basil, and olive oil.  A side note: it’s not to say that even after the completion of my crepe, I don’t clandestinely ferry copious amounts of the substance onto my plate, it’s just redolent of an ill-fitting friend that you bring along anyway.  Had I ordered the Margarita (romaine tomatoes, bacon, and buffalo mozzarella) or the Crepe de Chevre, or any other fromage dish, it might not have lacked such purpose.  On the flip side, the pepper purée nicely compliments each of my crepes. 

The Fraises Avec Nutella (fancy way of saying strawberries with a hazelnut spread) leaves even the most devout savourist drooling and satisfies the sweetest of teeth.  The Nutella is slathered not skimped but in my Utopia, that too would’ve come in a jar. 

And that wraps up my meal but a few final words.  It is not unknown for celebrities –oddly enough, specifically basketball players –to pay a visit.  I am told that the French player, Johan Petro, left minutes before my arrival (which makes me wonder whether the economy is that bad that a Nugget’s player has to come to Crepes ‘n Crepes during happy hour).  Last year, Josh Smith, forward to the Atlanta Hawks made a cameo.  It suggests that although the hoopla of crepes may fade, the restaurant will outlive the fad –the upscale location approaches it’s sixth year since birth; pointedly, because these crepes aren’t potboiled –they are truly French.

When boiled down, French cooking stirs some age-old sediments: whether saturated fat should be sacrificed for health or whether taste transcends.  But to be candid –at this Provençal infused eatery –‘it’s the best of both worlds,’ where the crossroads of savory and sweet coexist –where you can have your crepe and eat it too.  All of this would leave even Candide an optimist and Pangloss uncontrollably salivating like Pavlov’s pooches. 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Will the Real Slim Zaidy Please Stand up?

Some people look forward to March because it means Madness –basketball that is, others await the seminal seedlings of spring, but for me it’s a harbinger to the eight days of masticating matzoh. It gets stale.  Although the days begin to lengthen, it is at this time that I find myself most susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder.  In early March the Manischewitz items begin to cluster at the fringes of aisles. But this year, I may not be so dour.  If Zaidy's truly is, as the owner quotes on his website, "the best deli/restaurant in 
town?" maybe my spirits have reason to rise while my bread remains flat.

But first let’s get clear on semantics: There are two lineages of Judaism, of which, until a couple of days ago, I knew not which I was.  There are the Ashkenazis and then there are the Sephardics.  People ask me of my last name, usually butchering it in the process, "Ades [not Aids or 80’s but Ay-dis]...where is that from?"  And I reply, "Oh, it's Ashkenazic."  At times I feel it rings of more Sephardic undertones and I respond accordingly.  It isn't until a Jewish professor of mine poses the well placed question and I choose to answer, "oh it's either Sephardic or Ashkenazic" that he retorts, "well, it can't be both.”  I guess Ashkenazi and Sephardic are as different as blintzes and crêpes.  So that got me thinking, not enough to find out…just thinking; instead, it’s the possibility of being fact checked that goads me to dig up my roots.  I am a confirmed Sephardic –don’t judge me: Zaidy’s is an Ashkenazic deli.

So when I saunter into Zaidy’s –sans yamakah –I appreciate that they look past my lineage so that we can so seamlessly set aside our differences.  Actually, what I appreciate most is that when I do amble in circa 7:30 (thirty minutes before closing –something I didn’t know) and ask the man behind the hostess stand, vested in a paisley printed sweater, preened but not a fop, “if [you] close soon,” adding, “because I can come back tomorrow,” he embraces me at the forearm and says, “no, no, no,” and ushers me to a booth.  “We are all here,” he holds up his arms and gestures to the staff and other people dining.  The man, Gerard, turns out to be the owner.

He seats me in the booth nearest to the kitchen.  A section partitioned by the same mahogany-like wainscoting that circumferences the entire restaurant.  I choose the side of the booth that overlooks the partially open kitchen.  Zaidy’s is cozy and familiar, enchanting and foreign: Eastern Europe tempered with old-school diner. 
Zaidy’s (congenial for Zayde) means Grandfather in Yiddish.  Some other Yiddish terms you should know: shlimazel: someone with constant bad luck, schmendrik: a jerk or stupid person, schmaltzy: excessively sentimental, which comes from the word schmaltz –a term I will revisit, schmooze (you probably already know what this means…you also know if you do it too), and schmuck (to be resevered for those times when some yoyo in a Beemer cuts you off).  FYI: the true meaning of the word is penis –something to keep in mind.
But first things first: in reference to the title ‘is Zaidy’s authentic Jewish cuisine?’  Well yes and no.  It’s kind of like strolling through the MOMA, perusing specific galleries fraught with Dadaism (modern works painted on oversized canvas using one primary color that drips into different monochromatic gradations); sure it makes you feel smart, but is it really art?  Let’s face it, no “authentic” Jewish deli will serve you any Reuben sandwich because it’s not koshermeat and milk just don’t coalesce.  Straight from Leviticus…look it up [7:23].  Seriously…my Zaydies would’ve curdled at the thought. 
It’s the same reason Ashkenazic Jews in long ago Eastern Europe cooked with schmaltz (chicken fat/grease –one melts the fat and collects the drippings): because they couldn’t use dairy (i.e. butter) and geographical obstacles precluded them from employing the olive and sesame oils that were available to the Middle East.  For further information on latitudinal consequences of early civilizations refer to Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs, and Steel).
Less fat, more matter –let’s get to the heart of it: is Zaidy’s good food? 
Tolstoy begins Anne Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Zaidy’s is a happy family, an ordinary family; you’ll probably be hard-pressed to squeak out eight-hundred pages of a novel but maybe ‘ordinary’ isn’t so bad –perhaps if one plays Pachabel’s Canon enough, it’ll make it more appetizing.  But books and movies aside, who doesn’t want to dine out with a happy family?  For all its straight laces, Zaidy’s strings together some fine doilies.  One must understand the structure (of Judaism) that the deli/restaurant performs within –it’s a little like giving Miles Davis a one-three on beat and telling him to solo: can he still do it?  Sure, but you’ll constrict him and it’s going to sound kinda blue.
Most Jewish foods settle in the crepuscule that Teddy Roosevelt deems “the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”  It’s easy to achieve goodness but it’s much harder to be great: it’s equally hard to flop.  Latkes, for example, are difficult to botch.  And in Vermont where the backbeat of legitimate Maple Syrup eagerly waits employment on the top tray of the fridge –they’re foolproof.  But in all of Jewish cooking there is one place where a cook can rise from the rest: the matzoh ball. 
The balls are where there is, hands down, the most room for a chef to climb up.  The beauty of the matzoh ball is that one can’t insert many froufrous to fluff it up.  The foundation starts with eggs but from there, butter can’t assist (by kosher standards) and sugar can’t supplement.  And while the soup can provide some support, the matzoh ball must maintain a sense of hydrophilicity –a mostly impermeable membrane that circumvents sogginess.  The taste of an excellent matzoh ball is tricky to reify, it’s like Keats’ ‘Grecian Urn’ –only through paradox can it really be dissected: ‘Beauty is matzoh ball, matzoh ball beauty’.  Of the three sects of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, I think the one thing we unanimously agree on is that the only thing worse than a daedalian matzoh ball, one that strives for airy perfection but dishevels into its own self-destructive murkiness, is biting into a dinky, dense one.  
Zaidy’s pulls it off.  After my first bite, I am quick to kvetch that it lacks salt but by my third, I comprehend the syncopation from which the perfect mouthfeel ensues –how the diaphanous solution with its glistening, golden ripples of chicken fat mingle with a modicum of salt to compliment and espouse the balls, fully rounding them off.  Before my patiently awaiting kreplach cools, I finish my matzoh ball and guzzle down the remaining soup.
Kreplach is like a wanton –it is postulated that it was either brought by the Jews trading in China, who learned to make them there, or that the Khazars brought it to the Polish lands.  The dough consists of vegetable oil, salt, water, and flour: the filling is made up of a variety of vegetables usually combined with beef.  Zaidy’s kreplach shines in its own subtle way but again a structure that smacks Jewish, fetters the wonton.  It’s like matriculating into a college with an entire grading system based on pass/fail…no you didn’t invent the system but good luck when you apply for jobs.  If that metaphor means nothing to you, perhaps it’s like a figure skater who flawlessly performs an easy routine (if there’s a Frenchman on the judging committee, metaphor not applicable).  Kreplach can either be fried or boiled and I go with the boiled kreplach placed in chicken soup.  The dough is thin while maintaining enough tensile strength to brace the beef.  The meat filling consists of the meat, garlic, carrot, celery, onion, and oil.
I order the potato latkes for my entrée.  Syrup is not served as a side dish but sour cream and strawberry applesauce are.  FYI: really applesauce is the classic dressing, I (and most Jewish Vermonters) just impose syrup onto them.  These latkes are good –I taste no unwanted flavors and my sweet tooth can forbear until dessert; further, the strawberry applesauce quells my fleeting urges for my homeland’s syrupy substance.  A layer of grease, that I would prefer came as a side dish, anoints the surface of the pancakes; it’s a little unpleasant but more unnecessary.  Some people like such lubricants but my favorite latke experience comes from Laurel’s Kitchen (a cookbook): her usage of yeast while expending thrifty amounts of oil creates an airy texture that evokes the full flavor of the yeast and potato.
In addition, Zaidy’s makes a smorgasbord of sandwiches, eggs, steak, lox, blintzes (thin pancakes filled with cheese or brisket), kugel (either noodles or potatoes cooked in egg, butter, sugar, and other additions), and knishes: a dough filled with potato and spinach or kasha (buckwheat).
I haven’t mentioned my khaver (friend) until now…he is good company but brings little to the table; he orders a cheeseburger.  My Uncle often says to me, “you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.”  You can’t pick what they eat either.  When I ask him how his burger is he comments in the same laconic manner that I would’ve responded fourteen years ago to my parents’ question, “how was your day at school?”  “Good,” he says.
I don’t think it’s by a simple twist of fate that the women behind me lamenting unemployment, choose to dine at Zaidy’s: with its reasonable prices (four dollars for a cup of soup, five for a bowl, and averaging $8-9 for an entrée), Zaidy’s caters kindly to our wizened economy.
A TV mounted above the deli makes the diner milieu even more apparent.  It broadcasts American Idol.  Gerard cleaves his attention between his customers and the show, every now and then leaving his place behind the stand to get a closer look.  I personally have never been a big fan of the contest –the blinkering, blabbering façade that is Simon Cowell has always seemed distasteful to me.  But with the volume turned to a considerately low level and Cowell’s own recent defection, it doesn’t disturb the ambience. 
Wishing that my friend wasn’t ushering me out as quickly as Gerard had guided me in, afraid that our post supper pandiculations were overstretching our welcome –it is eight forty-five, there is no time for dessert.  As we leave, I give a closer look to the pictures on the walls, the framed photographs that adorn the columns, expecting to discern subtleties alluding to Times Square and the Lower East Side (outside of Israel it has the largest Jewish population in the world; it is also where my father grew up).  But in these pictures, I see unsuspecting signs of Denver from many years ago and I realize that Zaidy’s isn’t meant to be a New York Deli facsimile; it is a Denver Jewish deli/restaurant and that is as it should be.  As I walk past the stools that line the counter, I peek through the two display cases near to the door: one exhibiting delicatessen, the other flaunting pastries.  The case is unostentatious; rather, it’s the baked goods inside that attract the eye (distill your own life metaphors from this).  My friend pokes me.
I walk by Gerard, we shake hands, and thank each other.  To him, trivial is the time on the clock when sampled with our enjoyment of the meal and the service.  The two other dawdling customers stand tethered to the TV, watching as American Idol wraps up.  We leave them behind, evading the status of rotten eggs (last ones to leave). 
But even as my friend and I remove the front wheel from my bike, I’m still addled by this question of authenticity.  I want the schmaltz, the taking of the challah (another sign of kosher), and why is someone turning seventy watching American Idol?  I realize that I am the curmudgeon unaccommodating to change.  I remember reading a quote from Joan Nathan’s Jewish Cooking in America, on the ‘taking of challah,’ a sacrificial gesture in which the baker sets aside a piece of the dough, “You’ll often see that sign [challah has been taken] in a kosher bakery.  Jews seem to be masters at imbuing ordinary acts with symbolism.”  Maybe Nature has genetically bequeathed to me my schmaltziness.  Maybe it’s the difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazic.  Probably not.  Regardless, don’t pass over this jewbilation because when the end of March rolls around, I surely won’t.  There I will sit, enjoying Zaidy’s perfect matzoh balls on the patio where the umbrellas already sit tuckered into tables waiting to unfurl for that first glimmer of sun or for those willing to brave the cold.  But I will not open these umbrellas because during the eight tasteless days, I need the shades of sun to shield my susceptibility to SAD.  The real slim Zaidy, you need not stand because you are old and probably tired and I already know where to find you (121 Adams Street).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Chef Zorba's: The Full Catastrophe?

My neighbors are Greek.  Their protected names are Alex and Harice.  They shuffle along the edges of eighty.

I am cleaning out my Grandma’s gutter –she passed away four months ago –which hadn’t been cleaned in years, when my other neighbors –a gay couple across the street –offer me a leaf blower “id-uhl goweh mutch fast-irh we-ith this,” he tells me.  He’s from Arkansas.  True to his word, everything is going great until I get to the gutter on the North facing side, adjacent to the Greeks.  Three years worth of coagulated, composted leaves instantly slather the side of their house.  Oops.  I get down from the roof, walk next door, and knock.  Alex opens it, “Hey mahn.”  He speaks in an accent that seems more Jamaican than Greek.  “It smells good,” I tell him.  “One sec,” he says and scampers to the kitchen.  He brings back five pieces of a baked Greek good (notable ingredients: spaghetti squash and butter.  Read spaghetti squash doused in butter).  Delicious of course.   

I gather everything into a pile and then go home.  When I come back the next day to remove the pile and thank Harice for the food, she appears at the door frocked in her apron.  I begin thanking her when she holds up a finger and leaves me stranded.  She bustles back with three rolls and a paper plate adorned with Greek pastries; my neighbors have taught me to be more thankful.  She tells me not to worry about the pile of composted crud –she will get it. 
In relationships (even that of a writer and reader), I believe in full disclosure –here are my other Greek associations: there is the overly obnoxious, strongly feminine (meaning she would actually assert her opinion, which at the time was too much for me to handle) girl who lived on the floor below me freshman year –it is reasoned that she doesn’t know how to use a telephone and that is why her voice could be heard hollering at the other end of the hallway.  Then there is the Greek “student” (use that term loosely) who lived on my hall.  He is short, stocky, smokes a lot (cigarettes), hogs the ball in soccer, consistently wakes up at two o’clock in the afternoon missing most of his classes, takes forty-five minute shits, and all of this would've been alright if it weren’t that his roommate revealed to me (post facto freshman year) that once in his infantile stages of REM sleep, he awoke to Aph –as we called him–masturbating at his PC.

The above has no importance other than to demonstrate the smorgasbord of associations that scatter my platter: that there’s no such thing as a clean plate.

I went to Zorba’s (I would later learn that the owner was not titled as such) seeking a refuge from my inundation of shaky associations with the Greek culture.  So when I pull onto East Twelfth from Monroe and discern no Zorba’s, I wonder whether Greece just isn’t for me.  But no, “come home with your shield or on it.”  I see a boy and a girl (early twenties –does that make you a man and a woman?) smoking outside of a liquor store and ask them if they know where it is.  I subtly direct the question at the cute girl.  She doesn’t know but her boyfriend seems to, “It’s either on this block here or further down the road.”  I had already checked the block, so I thank them and head yonder.

Four blocks down I stop at a crosswalk to ask another man and woman (this time it appears to be man and mother, though it could’ve been a cougarous relationship). It is the woman who responds, “Keep on going,” and as I bike off into the night she calls out, “we were just there.” 

And there it is, Chef Zorba’s; not exactly the Parthenon of “hipsters” –although I have yet to fully dissect the meaning of that word –but Congress Park does have a good feel.   Unless you approach the restaurant face on, where a blue and white eavesdrop announces the casa of cuisine, you will only catch sight of a sign that juts from the side with unexciting black and red scribbles imposed on a dimly lit opalescent background.

But let’s face it, not every sign is as captivating as the
swiveling neon one christening Duffy’s Cherry Cricket and because it isn’t hard to apply the metaphor of judging books by their cover to signs of a restaurant (or even the title of a review for that matter); I take a deep breath, unsuccessfully attempt to expunge my Greek prejudices, finish my breath, and saunter in.  Seat Yourself.  I acquiesce.  I take a once over of the establishment and sit down at a table next to three men –the Denver equivalent to hillbillies.  

Booths border both sides of the restaurant, which is divided by a house-like wall with windows (perhaps an import from the Mediterranean); booths also align this Berlin Wall-like structure; tables aisle the two sets of booths.  Not cramped but cozy.  The kitchen can be seen through a rectangular window, matted by a brick-like façade remnant of Magritte.  Greek Music plays softly in the background; not loud enough to drone out the discourses of the three tangible men seated at the table over but too loud for my auditory lobe to process a theoretical conversation of a group of hypothetical girls I wish were sitting to my left.  

Perhaps it is because I arrive at seven-thirty but the place seems vacant; soon departing couples dust the corners.  Whether or not the rush came when my navigational facilitators were dining or whether Monday night doesn’t goad the Foodies, I can’t say –I am not an oracle.  What I can say is that regardless, the service is exceptional.  Besides the existential waverings of where to sit as well as my water glass remaining half empty (it still had ice) for protracted periods of time, I am coddled and cared for.  Note: The day after I reviewed the restaurant, I had my first meeting with a book group (all men, classics only –so as to preclude the subtle infiltration of Oprah’s Books onto the reading list).  I told the group about my visit to Zorba’s and a fellow bookworm asked, “Did they fill your water glass?  That is how I determine a good restaurant.”  I laughed and then explained the situation.  A filled cup of H2O is more important to some than it is to others.

If you expect to find a waitress with a napkin creased across her wrist, you won’t find it here; what you will find is a family-like staff well acquainted with the menu and adequately versed in Greek dining.  The “regulars” are nestled into the bosom of this family, which is homey to think about until I realize that I barely cling to the branches of the extended relatives.  Still, I have the inkling that if I were to visit frequently enough, I'd be invited to the reunion. 

The three men though, have already wiggled their way into the nucleus.  The waitress talks to them about her “football injury” not by playing but by watching.  She talks of the “Favre-Manning bowl” both names I know but then goes on to other references that are all Greek to me.  She skirts to another table and chats with two women.

The owner, a bespectacled man of modest height donning jeans and a polo shirt with skimpy stripes, occasionally emerges from the kitchen to peruse the floor.   Not a floor man but a loiterer dispensing selected attention to certain people.  Case in point: he provides a Serbian woman and her husband, whom he approaches for the reason that he identifies her as such –she seems dazzled by the feat, with two Greek pastries on the house for which I want to reprimand him because if you don’t have enough for everyone than you shouldn’t share at all.  But I don’t because his was a nice gesture. 

         “It was fantastic,” remarks the husband of the Serbian.
         “Ah fantastisk,” repeats the owner “thanks.” 

Eventually, assisted by the waitress I get the attention of Jimmy; it is true, we share the same moniker though I don’t feel the need to mention it.  He tells me about the history of the restaurant, how it used to be two doors down – “and then they moved here and opened the next day,” the waitress adds from around the partition.  He tells me how he partnered with the Greek fellow and together the restaurant has been in operation for twenty-five years.  As for the American, Mexican cuisine it’s as one would assume, a world that circumvents specialization in an age that whistles for a more generalized one.  I look at the menu, giving the “Classic Dinner Entrees” (American concoctions) less of a glance than girls bestow to me on a crowded summer day striding down Sixteenth Street.  I give the Mexican a once over –long enough to see the Chicken Chimichanga –and then I move on. 

The waitress comes over two times before I am ready to order and then before the third, from a distance, she teeters her thumbs between the “ups” and down position and rather than just nodding, which I didn’t think of until after the fact, I awkwardly stick up my two thumbs.  I decide on the “Spread of Greece”: “Four Grecian dips with pita bread.  Taramasalata, Skordalia, Hummus, and Tzatziki.” 

The Tzatziki could use more dill, it is too thick for what I prefer –still, far past the point of pleasantly edible.  The Taramasalata, “a Greek caviar of carp roe whipped and blended with spices and extra virgin olive oil,” is something that I have never had.  It is savory but bland –my taste buds tell me that it adds a nice layer of lubrication to my arteries.  The Hummus, of which you could probably muster five hundred different and decent recipes with one Google search, settles somewhere closer to good than great on Aristotle’s Golden Mean.  Muffled comes to mind.  If I were making it, I would go with a more garlicky flavor, a fluffier texture.  Bordering the three other dishes is the Skordalia, a culinary preparation of garlic, mashed potatoes, and olive oil (in such plentitude that I later found out upon dismounting from my bike and disrobing my backpack that it had leaked from the container and into my bag–that’s a positive);  with its abundance of garlic, it pleasantly compliments the hummus. Take all of the above with a grain of salt (indeed, the hummus probably could take some as well) because I am not Greek nor have I ever ventured to the land of Hellas; I have only eaten at Greek restaurants and I have Greek neighbors. 

Originally thinking about getting the “Gyro Plate” for the entrée, the waitress suggests that I get the Spanakopita because it includes the gyro.  I concur.  The plate is delivered with spinach and feta cheese inserted with baked layers of flaky phyllo, the gyro, pita bread, and French fries.  Yum (that’s for the French fries).  Actually, I'd be flattered had they decided to keep these frites on the children’s menu.  In addition, a standard Greek salad, a pleasant accompaniment but nothing to write home about, escorts the meal.  The Spanikopita is tasty.  The gyro is wittily carved to a slender succulence: thin enough to be tackled by the incisors.  I am sure Sam I Am would eat it with green eggs and ham but I have it on the pita with tzatziki and it is splendid. 

In the end, I give Chef Zorba’s three dots out of four: not because the food is solid (which it is), but because the atmosphere and service sometimes trump the main course (Dominoes, this doesn’t apply to you).  And of course the price (twenty two dollars with ample food to pack up), which is completely affordable to even the stingiest of college grads (as a boy Bar Mitzvahed and two years out of school, I collect both categories).  In fact, the service –the vibe… the Duende is so comforting that I tip over the standard gratuity, which given my two aforementioned characteristics, says a lot.  Three dots out of four because of hope, hope that one day I will return in the summer, sit out on the patio, and –in the words of a musical artist who had a flickering fling, a thing of the past with our own American version of Nike –“soak up the sun.”  In the end, it was not at all a full catastrophe; rather, like the song of the Sirens, I just wanted to tempt your attention.