Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nikos Taverna

Date night almost didn't happen yesterday. Both DC and I were feeling under the weather, me from the still-lingering, apparently never-ending cold I've had for weeks, DC from a pulled muscle that made him want to stay home with his ice-pack. However, we rallied at the thought of mouthwatering Greek food, and ventured out to Nikos Taverna on Davis Drive in Morrisville. Nikos Taverna is a family-owned restaurant, and a newly=opened companion to their Durham location.

This was our second visit to Nikos, and just like last time, the food was terrific and the service top-notch. I was ravenous, as my only sustenance thus far had consisted of polishing off the mango smoothie and peach yogurt DS had left in the fridge.

The moment we walked in the door, we were welcomed warmly by the host and seated at a cozy table. Nikos has tables only, all 4-tops, thank goodness, but no banquettes. (I hate being squeezed into a 2-top, that invariably is too small for the all the food and plates.) The colors are vibrant yet soothing, accented by rich cranberry red and tea green.

Our waiter appeared promptly to take our drink orders: ginger ale all around! (Yeah, we're just party animals!) To his credit, our waiter did not bat an eye, despite the alluring selection of lovely wines on the menu. The waiter also asked if we wanted to hear the dinner specials-- which I appreciated, since at times when eating out we either never hear about the specials OR the waitperson drones on and on about them when we've already made up our minds. There were three dinner specials: one was a grilled whole yellow snapper (which sounded amazing), a surf & turf combination, and I can't remember the 3rd!

The menu offers a nice selection of appetizers, dips, vegetarian dishes, oven-roasted entrees, pastas, grilled offerings, and seafood. The appetizer selection includes some of my favorites, including octopus (mmmmm!) and dolmades, stuffed grape leaves. We decided to start with the saganaki, the traditional flaming cheese appetizer, as well as an order of taramosalata. While we were waiting for the appetizers, the waiter left us with a basket of fresh, warm crusty bread and herb-infused oil to dip it in. It was really good! Had we not known what was coming, we would have asked for more!

The saganaki was very festive, and delivered with a hearty "Opa!" When the flames died down the waiter squeezed fresh lemon juice over the cheese-- yum, yum! The lemon was perfect with the warm, salty cheese. DC thoroughly enjoyed it!

I have to admit that as delicious as the saganaki was, I was more enamored of the taramosalata (red cavar dip) and the fresh, fresh, fresh, warm house-made pitas. Wow, the pita bread was amazing-- fresh from the oven, it was soft but the crust had just the slightest amount of delightful crunch to it. Irresistible! The waiter had to bring us seconds, as we finished the pita before the dip was gone. The taramosalata was so good I couldn't stop eating it! I am not a huge caviar fan, but this charmingly pink dip was pure magic: rich, smooth cream cheese studded with salty bits of roe, delivering just the right amount of unctuous ocean flavor. (Yes, I mean "fishy," but in a good way!) Yum-O! I was thrilled that DC seemed to enjoy it also. It's a good thing DS wasn't with us, as he and I would surely have been fighting over the dip :)

As I mentioned, the menu offers an impressive selection of dips, including the Trio Combination. You get to choose any 3 dips, and they are served with feta and stuffed grape leaves. I seriously could make a whole meal from this, only as DC doesn't like hummus or cucumber, and is iffy on eggplant, I fear we could not find 3 dips he would enjoy.

When the entrees arrived, they were gorgeous! I really appreciate the fact that the portions are normal-sized, rather than large enough to feed a small village. (Don't worry, you WON'T leave hungry, we're not talking nouvelle cuisine here!) DC ordered the Stuffed Shrimp "Garrides Bacon," which was 4 or 5 lovely-looking enormous prawns stuffed with crabmeat and wrapped in bacon (how could you go wrong??). It was delicious! After much thought, I ended up choosing one of the evening's specials, grilled filet mignon with scallops. I love steak!!! I love seafood!!! Score!!!

I really appreciated our waiter's thorough knowledge of the menu and preparation of each dish, because I was having trouble deciding between the Greek-marinated grilled ribeye and the filet special. I was really feeling in the mood for something well-marinated, so I asked whether the filet was. The waiter told us that it was marinated briefly in olive oil and rosemary before going on the grill. Was the ribeye more marinated? I wanted to know. Turns out it receives the same quick treatment as the filet. I picked the filet since it came with scallops (which I adore).

The filet arrived with a mushroom demi-glace, and it was perfectly cooked, medium rare, just as I'd asked for. It was flavorful, juicy, and melt-in-your-mouth tender. The only slight disappointment was that being filet, it didn't taste "steaky," more like roast beef. Of course, that is the nature of filets, and I knew that when I ordered it. Even without being "steaky" it was still scrumptious! The scallops were delicious, neither overcooked and rubbery (sadly, too often the case) nor undercooked and gooey. Just sweet, tender essence of shellfish. Perfect!

I really must take a moment to talk about the sides. To me, the sides are every bit as important as the entrees. It was clear from the beautiful presentation that the sides weren't just an afterthought, but carefully prepared to complement the entrees. We both had the same sides. First, a medley of fresh vegetables: carrots sliced on the bias, snowy-white cauliflower, and broccoli florets. Sadly, I generally avoid the "steamed vegetable" choice like the plague at most restaurants, as they are invariably dreary, overcooked lumps that all taste the same, like overcooked broccoli, which generally accounts for 70% of it anyway. This was NOT the case with the vegetables at Nikos. They were perfectly cooked and seasoned with a tasty sauce with just a hint of garlic. DC even commented on how good the carrots were, and he almost never touches his vegetable sides when we eat out.

The real star, however (arguably of the whole meal, in my opinion :) ), were the sumptuous lemon potatoes. Truth be told, my entire entree choice was based upon whether it included lemon potatoes or not!! They are WONDERFUL-- piquant with lemon, firm but tender, and well, I hate to use this word, because it sounds bad, but mealy or flaky is the only way I can describe it-- you know, the way a really good baked potato is kind of dry and starchy? (I hate it when the baked potatoes are "baked" in foil, because really, they are steamed, and moist inside, which to me, defeats the whole idea of a fluffy baked potato.) I could have happily made a whole meal just of lemon potatoes! I can NEVER get them to taste this good at home. Hmmm... wonder if I could cajole the recipe out of them?

By now we were stuffed to the gills, but it was one of those days where I knew I wouldn't feel like I'd had dinner if we didn't get dessert. You can sure tell I'm from the South, I have a sweet tooth that just won't quit. (Have you ever noticed how Southerners call everyone Sugar, Honey, and Sweetie Pie? It's no coincidence: we're all addicted to sugar!) DC was really too full for dessert, but he's very indulgent! He graciously agreed to look at the dessert tray. I am a bad influence on him :(!

The dessert tray included lemon custard, baklava, chocolate rum ball, cheesecake, red velvet cake (it's a Southern thing!), chocolate cake, and an assortment of Greek cookies. We both ended up ordering the amazing, stupendous, house-made lemon custard. (Did I mention I'm a bad influence on DC?) There are a few desserts that the owner's wife bakes fresh each day: the Greek cookies, the baklava, and the lemon custard are among them. There are no words to describe the utter, total deliciousness of the lemon custard- to eat it is to be instantly transported to paradise. "Lemon Custard" is a bit misleading, as it really consists of a heavenly, rich lemony custard tenderly wrapped in a delectable crisp phyllo crust and served doused in honey syrup. (Well, maybe not exactly doused, but "coated" sounds so pedestrian!) I had mine with hot mint tea (with sugar, of course :) ).

Our meal at Nikos Taverna was thoroughly enjoyable. From the tasteful and soothing decor to the exquisite food to the solicitous yet unobtrusive service (the waiter kept our ginger ales topped off, though I am sure it must have pained him to see that beautiful food washed down with such swill!), I highly recommend Nikos Taverna. If you have not tried it, I urge you to hurry over as soon as possible, before it becomes so popular it's impossible to get a table.

We give it the coveted 5 Wooden Spoons!

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