Tuesday, March 23, 2010

OPA! My Big Fat Greek Weekend

"In many ways we are all sons and daughters of ancient Greece."
-- Nia Vardalos (author and star of the wonderful film 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding')

Over the past weekend the weather was quite a bit cooler than the incredible May-like temperatures we enjoyed last week here in London. Perhaps it was a gentle reminder from Mother Nature that it is, after all, still March - and this is Canada. But I didn't care. I spent the weekend in Greece. Well, sort of.

On Saturday, my partner, Mark, and I enjoyed a delightful evening celebrating the 60th birthday of a colleague from my work. About two dozen of us - coworkers plus partners - met a a wonderful restaurant in the heart of London. It is a Greek restaurant. But please do not spend even a second imagining the typical 'Greek restaurant' that is ubiquitous in small town Ontario. My first job, in fact, was as a waitress at the age of 16 in such a restaurant. And when I remember this brief, hideous experience, a lot of colourful adjectives come to mind. But none of them, I confess, would be 'Greek'.

Thankfully, this place is nothing like that. It is 'Mykonos', a charming island of exotic Greek cuisine in the city of London. 'Mykonos' started off as a humble fish and chip restaurant, opened about three decades ago by Greek immigrants Heidi and Bill Vamvalis. Heidi has become a very visible persona to their many loyal patrons. She embodies such a warm, magnetic personality and she radiates such positive energy as she navigates through the restaurant shining her considerable light on all the fortunate diners.

How can I describe the atmosphere at 'Mykonos'? It is quaint and interesting with an almost completely blue and white decor. As soon as you walk through the door you can feel yourself being transported from a spot midway between Lake Huron and Lake Erie over to the fabulous Mediterranean Sea. You feel as though you've stumbled upon a charming family restaurant on a delightful Greek island where, although you are a tourist, you are made to feel completely at home.

Upon our arrival, we mingled and chatted with the others - reconnecting with those familiar and introducing ourselves to those previously only heard about and imagined. Very soon the time came for all of us to become seated at our very long table and await the entrance of the clearly surprised (and apparently delighted) guest of honour and his lovely lady.

Very soon the table filled with platters of assorted appetizers: feta cheese, olives, roasted red pepper dip as well as the famous tzatzkiki, a fabulous and delicious spread made from butter or lima beans called 'gigantes', along with a dazzling mashed potato and garlic spread served along with sliced of fresh baguette and pita triangles. Delicious!

And as if that weren't enough, later on several servers suddenly appeared with plates of saganaki cheese which they very dramatically doused with shots of Ouzo and immediately set aflame. Wow! That cheese was astonishingly good. Heaven! Oh, my.

For my main course I enjoyed Spanakopita with a Greek salad. Creamy, tangy, spicy deliciousness. Just imagine two dozen entrees coming out one just barely behind the next. My goodness, these people have it all together. Whereas a few minutes before I had been listening to the cacophony of animated conversation, suddenly and swiftly there was close to a zen-like silence as everyone began to dedicate themselves to their main courses. The many full plates became starkly white again, and the various wine bottles and carafes stood empty, leaving the celebrants relaxed, fulfilled, and happy. What a night!

The evening was so much fun that upon our arrival home, Mark and I were inspired to watch the movie 'Shirley Valentine' for about the hundredth time. Always a sheer delight.

And it didn't end there. Our connection with the spirit of Greece was still palpable on Sunday. So I created a Greek-inspired menu and Mark and I went shopping. Later on, Mark and I and Devin (my daughter Eliza's friend) cooked up a tasty dinner: lemon/garlic/herb/almond chicken breasts and vegetarian 'chick'n breasts', roasted lemon-dill potato cubes with chopped red and green peppers, orange ginger carrots, cucumbers and tzatziki sauce along with pita triangles. Yum! This delicious dinner prompted me to remember all things Greek stored in my memory, and I was happy to succomb.

Two summers ago I was visited by both a long-time Israeli friend, Orly, and a new-found Chilean friend, Alejandra. We three went to the cinema together to see "Mamma Mia" and enjoyed it so much that we made a pact to focus on the dream of vacationing together in Greece. What a dream!

Well, a couple of months ago I received a voice message from Orly in Israel. In her thick Israeli accent she said, "Diana. We talked about meeting one each other in Greece and I wonder if you are still planning this trip?" Orly is such an optimist! I love it.

Still planning? No. Not exactly. But still dreaming?? Absolutely! And I sincerely hope this dream will come true. But until it does, there is always 'Mykonos'. It has long been, and remains, a vibrant touch of Greece in Southwestern Ontario. 'Efaristo (thank you), Mykonos!!' Efaristo, indeed.



The recipe this week is for the wonderfully delicious appetizer, 'Gigantes'. Believe it or not, I heard several people say this was their favourite dish of all that night. Both the photo and recipe are courtesy of Food Network star, Rachel Ray.


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