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MY BIG FAT GREEK APPETIZER

I've never been to Greece, but I hear that eating at restaurants is mostly an outdoor affair. This fact bodes well for the Greek Corner on Orange Avenue, where the outside tables afford a picturesque view over Lake Ivanhoe. Formerly the home of Tiramisu Café, the new restaurant has a better grasp of Greek food than Tiramisu had of Italian. And there's a logical reason for that: The Greek Corner is owned by Demetrius and Tia Tsafonias, a husband-and-wife team from a small village outside Athens, Greece. The couple ran restaurants in the northern U.S. for years before coming south.

The inside space is still cramped and a little cheesy, but fortunately the outside space has been gussied up in Greek décor and is still a great asset. When the weather is right, it's lovely to sit on the patio, looking over the lake that's pooled in front of the downtown skyline, nibbling dolmathakia ($6.50), tightly wrapped cigars of grape leaves surrounding rice spiced with dill, mint and pungent lemon.

Some of the earliest written records about Mediterranean cuisine come from ancient Greece, but the Greek cuisine of today is more closely linked with the Albanians and Turks. Proud of their culinary history, many Greeks would be distressed to hear that their country's cuisine was influenced by surrounding Mediterranean countries, rather than the other way around. For instance, we can thank the Albanians on the Isle of Crete for the technique of spit-roasting used in traditional Greek kebab dishes. Another influence on modern Greek cooking comes from the Byzantine era, which heralded the emergence of the popular dish moussaka ($13.50), concocted with eggplant and lamb baked in béchamel sauce.

The most awe-inspiring dish I ordered at Greek Corner was the hot meze platter ($12.50), one of the restaurant's specialties. Four of us ordered the appetizer, which is recommended for two people, and we were stuffed silly before we finished. The platter has a dizzying array of samplings from the menu, including two distinct salads that deserve honorable mention: melitzanosalat, made from roasted eggplant and red pepper, is smoky and sultry; and taramosalata, featuring the oceany flavor of whipped orange caviar. Besides these two salads, the big fat Greek appetizer brimmed with baked feta, gyro meat, braised lamb and more. If we had known the huge portions on the meze, we wouldn't have ordered the calamari ($8.50) appetizer, which was chewy but had flavor. Its red sauce tasted mostly of the grassy finish of Greek olive oil.

There were many other starters, including the ever-present spanikopita ($6), which stems from a traditional Lent snack. Greek Corner's is a standard envelope of phyllo stuffed with tangy feta and spinach so well-cooked that it almost tastes more like an herb than a vegetable. The Greek salad ($6.75) is an OK version of what you'd expect – mixed greens with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, kalamata olives and fresh feta cheese with a dressing loaded with oregano. Avgolemono soup ($3), so named from the Greek words for "egg" and "lemon" and heavy on both ingredients, is a chicken soup stocked with bright lemon juice and musky black pepper as well as ribbons of egg yolk.

Among the entrees, the braised lamb ($13.95) was one of the best. The meat was succulently tender and had a heavy sauce rich with sweet spices – I tasted cinnamon, nutmeg and garlic. Pastitsio ($13.50), the Greek version of lasagna, was perfectly crusty and crunchy on the outside, while having an inner layer that was pliable and soft. Spiced beef and cream sauce with a hint of nutmeg rounded out the ziti-like pasta. Culinary historians might be interested to know that pastitsio has both Italian and Muslim influences – Italian in name but Muslim in technique.

We couldn't leave without indulging in the baklava ($2.50) with walnuts drenched in simple syrup. The homemade galaktoboureko ($3.50) may be more difficult to say but is vastly better, featuring a lemony custard. As is Greek tradition, your belly will be full as you finish those last bites of dessert and look out over Lake Ivanhoe, wondering if you'll be able to get up and walk.

dining@orlandoweekly.com
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