Story by Barbara and Manos Angelakis
Photos by Manos Angelakis
A few years ago North Jersey was enriched by the opening of an authentic Greek Restaurant called Lefkes in Englewood Cliffs for which we wrote a glowing review. Lefkes took off and became a go-to restaurant when Greek cuisine, especially fresh, perfectly prepared fish and seafood, was our choice of dining. Well, time marches on and Lefkes is now under new management with a new kitchen chef. The management and kitchen staff came from the now closed “Syros”, another very well regarded Greek restaurant in North Jersey.
We just returned from a taste of the “new” Lefkes and found that the traditional authentic dishes have been refined and are presented with panache to achieve the most scintillating taste and look – pleasing to the eyes and exciting to the taste buds.
In order to appreciate the Greek kitchen, meze (small plates or appetizers) is the way to go. So we ordered several of our favorites to be able to judge the new menu. We also ordered glasses of ouzo, the anise-flavored Greek aperitif that is very traditional with meze.
The grilled octopus was presented over fava purée and one bite returned me to memories of seaside tavernas overlooking the Aegean Sea, where outdoor grilles were dedicated to charcoaling sun-dried octopus to perfection. I have never tasted better this side of the world and the addition of a base of savory fava purée enhanced this dish.
Next came Manos’ favorite, Eggplant Imam.
Imam Bayildi i.e. “the priest fainted” is a classic Turkish dish, normally an open faced, oven baked Asian eggplant scored and stuffed with sliced onions, sweet red peppers, cilantro, garlic, a couple tomato slices and pinolia nuts; it is known for the abundant use of extra virgin olive oil in its preparation. In this case, the dish was not the traditional Turkish version, as instead of Asian eggplant with the vegetables on top, it was Italian eggplant baked with the classic vegetables but covered with a tasty tomato sauce and topped with feta cheese crumbs, before being placed under the grill. That version of Imam is very popular at tavernas of Northern Greece, and is known as “papoutsakia” i.e. little shoes. What an amazing improvement; the eggplant was perfectly soft but not overcooked nor was it bitter, while the addition of the sauce and cheese topping was sublime.
The tuna tartar, while not a typical Greek dish, was fresh and delicious topped by avocado; although I would have preferred it without the ponzu sauce base which I felt added nothing to the dish that a dab of wassabi would not accomplish better.
The shrimp dish called “Spicy Lefkes” was very similar to Shrimp Saganaki or Shrimp Santorini-style, where shrimp is simmered in a richly flavored tomato sauce and topped with feta cheese. In this case the sauce was much lighter and flavored with ouzo but the shrimps were huge and meaty and the toasted grilled bread doused with olive oil that is served with the dish was perfect to sop up the tasty sauce.
The pièce de résistance for me was the zucchini chips; the closest I’ve had to my Mother-in-law’s who was Greek raised in Istanbul, Turkey. Her food was colored by her “Oriental” upbringing and she had a way with zucchini that I have been unable to find even after many trips to both Greece and Turkey… until now. It was to me alone worth the trip to Lefkes. Of course it was served with the traditional tzatziki dip which in this case was authentic Greek yogurt, again not so easy to find outside of Greece.
All of the above can be shared by the table, as is the tradition in Greece prior to your entrée, or you can make a meal with several appetizers listed on the menu; many more are offered than we could taste at one sitting and it would be a shame to pass up on the fish entrées featured at the display ice bar. In a Greek restaurant fish is always cooked to perfection, and Lefkes is no exception.
One of my fond memories from my many visits to Greece was a stop along the beach-front road from Athens to Cape Sounion, where we stopped for lunch at a local taverna that had tables across the road, on the beach. As is usual in Greece, Manos went into the kitchen and selected fish from the day’s offerings. We were seated on the beach under a shade awning enjoying the song the waves made rushing to the shore and hearing children’s laughter as they played, while patiently awaiting for the charcoal grilled fish. It was delivered on a tray held high over the waiters head as he deftly navigated the traffic on the road to reach our table. Sides were a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and feta cheese doused with extra virgin olive oil and fresh oregano, a plate of fries, tzatziki with homemade yogurt, and a bottle of Assyrtiko. It was one of those simple pleasures that forever live in your heart and mind.
The new management team at Lefkes has maintained the high quality of the menu offerings, while adding a taverna feeling that was missing from the more formal previous ambiance. The wait staff is friendly and knowledgeable and eager to help with selections.
No Greek dinner would be complete without a Greek coffee (demitasse). In Greece it used to be known as Turkish coffee (but was changed in 1974 to “Greek” coffee after Turkey invaded Cyprus); and in Turkey (Izmir), it was called Greek coffee! There are some 40 versions ranging from double spoonfuls of coffee without sugar and not fully boiled, known as “pola vari kai ohi”, to double boiled with lots of sugar “glyki vrastos” to boiled with a shot of heavy double-condensed cream, called “kaymakli”. In the day, you could even order your coffee by the number of bubbles found floating on top of the crema but in our case “sweet and double boiled” is the preferred version.
There are so many menu items still to taste that return visits, with friends of course, are on our to do list. For us, Lefkes shines!
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