Dining / Restaurants / Things To Do

It’s All Greek to Me!

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The Greek Place Restaurant

I absolutely love the flavors of Greek food, so this restaurant was a true pleasure for my palate.  Throw in a little belly dancing, flaming cheese, and remarkably gracious service, and it was a feast for the senses!

Vassiliki Batzakidou (“Vasso”) opened The Greek Place three years ago on the north-east corner of Winchester and Jefferson.  She had found success with her first restaurant of the same name in Idyllwild, and left her son in charge to bring her authentic Greek culinary skills and warm Greek hospitality to Temecula.  Her obscure location (behind the car wash) certainly does not do her food justice, but those who have taken the time to find her, are in for a treat.

Vasso herself is a true gem.  She is the perfect Greek Mama, and she cooks and servers and entertains with flair.  She’s the kind of woman who greets strangers like friends, friends like family, and everyone with a smile, a hug, a big plate of food and a cold glass of wine.  She has a warm enthusiasm that radiates through her eyes and, most importantly, is a superb cook.

The Greek Place Upon entering, the restaurant feels bright and welcoming, with the requisite blue-and-white-checkered tablecloths.  But the décor is unfussy and fresh, not a Greek caricature.  The friendly atmosphere is comfortable for a casual lunch, a family meal, or a nice dinner date, especially with all the entertainment Vasso has provided.

On Fridays and Saturdays, patrons are treated to belly dancing and accordion music.  We had the pleasure of being there when Nikkal Feyrouz was performing.  I love watching talented belly dancers, and I was expecting a lot of enviable hip shimmies—but I was not anticipating three-foot knives being balanced on her head as she gingerly danced on glass dishware.  Wow!  There was also audience participation by a few brave souls, which is always good for a laugh.  In between performances, Veronika Huggins, a trained concert pianist, provided the light dinner music on her accordion, playing everything from traditional Greek music to Frank Sinatra to La Bamba.

But the entertainment doesn’t end there.  Our server Tasos, originally from Corinth, was quite the charming and funny host.  He has a real passion for Greek food and Greek wine and loves sharing it with guests.  Vasso is often busy in the kitchen, so it’s nice that her energy and enthusiasm is channeled through her staff.

But of course, the real star of the show is Vasso’s food!  In fact, one of the dishes—Saganaki—is a performance in itself.  I still can’t believe that I’d never encountered flaming cheese before, and I don’t think I can have cheese any other way after this.  Saganaki is a special Greek cheese bathed in brandy, dressed with a squeeze of lemon, then lit aflame at the table.  But it’s not all in the presentation.  The taste is sinfully heaven:  sweet, salty, tangy, and oh-so-creamy.  Opa!

We enjoyed the cheese with a glass of Retsina, the traditional Greek white wine that, like Ouzo, people have strong opinions about.  Vasso says that in ancient times, sailors used to transport it in pine barrels sealed with resin, and eventually the wine took on this flavor.  First a mistake, it became tradition, and is now intentionally fermented to carry this strong character.  Following the adage, “When in Greece…,” I tried it.  I love it, so I’m feeling quite proud of my new-found Greek-ness.

The Greek Place Vasso also insisted we try the Lamb Chops—not on the menu, but those “in-the-know” ask for this expertly prepared meal.  A customer, who had travelled from Banning just for the meal and entertainment, commented that “a lot of people don’t know how to cook lamb and it tastes too gamey.  But this is perfect.”  And he was right.  Succulent and tender, it cut with a butter knife.  And the nuanced secret recipe of spices paired splendidly with tzatziki sauce and a glass of the Rodetes (Greek rosé wine).

The most popular dish is the Chicken Souvlaki Plate, chicken skewers served over rice with a Greek salad.  I’ve had this dish elsewhere, but never has the chicken been this moist and juicy!  And her rice is not just an obligatory after-thought.  It too was cooked perfectly and seasoned with those delicious Greek spices I love so much.

But my true test for a Greek restaurant is the hummus and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), so I asked to sample appetizers.  Being the generous Greek hostess she is, she complied with not just tangy hummus and perfect dolmades, but also super savory falafels and her fun Fire Feta with warm pita bread.  The Fire Feta was thankfully more flavorful than fiery, and the falafels were surprising spicy and super moist.  This is not your food court Greek food; this is what I imagine Greece tastes like!

Belly Dancer Our Greek tour ended with the quintessential dessert, Baklava, which was by far the best I have ever tasted.  Most baklava is made too sickly sweet or flakey dry for me, but Vasso’s homemade delicacy is extremely moist with the perfect amount of sweetness.  Another addictive dessert is Kataifi: shredded filo dough, vanilla pudding, syrup, walnuts and whipped cream.  Very sweet but very light and refreshing.  Or you can enjoy the simple yet scrumptious Greek yogurt drizzled with honey and walnuts.  It is a tangy and sweet compliment to a flavorful meal.

So, whether you’re a long-time fan of Greek food or just want to try something new (including belly dancing), I encourage you to visit Vasso at The Greek Place.  The food, the warmth, the charm, and the entertainment will not disappoint.  Taste of Temecula will have its August 18 Lunch Meet-up at The Greek Place, and Vasso promises a special treat for all.  Opa!

The Greek place is located at 27326 Jefferson Ave Suite 17 (Northeast corner of Jefferson and Winchester).  Call 951-296-5674 or visit them online at http://thegreekplace.blogspot.com.

Nikkal Feyrouz, Belly Dance: nika@thedancingbelly.com; 909-908-0927 
Veronika Huggins, Russian Concert Pianist/Accordion Player: nikahuggins@msn.com; 952-609-8302

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