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Belly up!

Taverna Plaka opens, plus Chicago dogs and Indian artichoke dip



My friend Harry, a Greek physicist living in London, assures me that sirtaki, that line dance in which his countrymen link arms to shoulders Zorba-like, "can be quite uplifting." He also insists that belly dancing "can be quite beautiful."

So it would be unfair to dismiss both experiences, unavoidable at the new Taverna Plaka (2196 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-636-2284), as inauthentic, although Harry agrees they are most popular at tourist restaurants in Greece. Perhaps if I drank large quantities of ouzo, I could better appreciate the mania of such performances.

Even good food would help. But I have not had very good food at Plaka. On my first visit to the restaurant, which has been open almost two months, I ordered a giant prawn that was served on its back, looking like the huge bug-eyed model of a grasshopper I had as a kid. I pierced the shell, which exuded pink goo. As I ate the undercooked, slightly sour flesh of the tail, two belly dancers shook violently five inches from my face. Opa! It's a satanic ritual!

At a subsequent visit, rotisserie lamb — 18 ounces of it and mainly bone — was chewy and so greasy in its marinade of lemon-spiked olive oil that I could not eat more than a few bites. There were weird black pieces of skin which I put on Wayne's plate since he, having sacrificed all critical objectivity to nostalgia for Mykonos, kept raving about the place, freely dispensing dollars to the belly dancers to make them go away.

His own entree, a whole striped bass, black with herbs and oil, tasted fishy and was overcooked. When he ordered it, our server, a delightful Bulgarian woman, warned him that it would take 30 minutes to prepare. We balked and she replied, "Well, if you've eaten at Kyma, you know this is standard." Believe me, this is not Kyma's quality.

The best choice here is to get drunk, dance and order mezze. The restaurant has a lengthy menu of the appetizer-size dishes and they are mainly better than the entrees. An exception is the giant beans cooked far too long with tomatoes and dill. A marinated eggplant spread is not as good as the Middle Eastern baba ganoush but it's a bit more complex with some herbs and red onion. Actually, I like the do-it-yourself hummus that comes at the meal's start even better. The server hands you a big wooden mortar and pestle in which you grind chickpeas with oil and seasonings.

Pork and lamb sausage is a large serving, very spicy and very chewy, but irresistible. Squeeze lots of lemon over it. Fried smelts were a bit overcooked, but I was glad to find them and sorry the grilled sardines were not available. (Nor were the marinated sweetbreads.) A grilled octopus salad, heavy with red wine vinegar, was passable but tasted like it had been made much too long ago.

Prices are reasonable. Most entrees are well under $20, with the exception of market-priced fish (like Wayne's $23 sea bass). Mezze average $6. Plaka has a lengthy list of Greek wines, including retsinas, and some fascinating martinis, a few of which may have you sirtaki-dancing with the staff, happily wearing in your hair the huge prawn you couldn't eat.

Da New Place

Da Chicago Dogs is the latest restaurant to make a go at 1877 Piedmont Road in the shopping center near Cheshire Bridge Road (404-815-8135). Every sandwich and hot dog name here is preceded by the slang "Da." All da dogs are 100-percent beef and you can upgrade da rather small weenies to da quarter-pound size for a dollar extra. Ain't dat da bomb?

The classic Chicago style — mustard, relish, hot peppers, onion, tomato, celery salt — needs more of its condiments to satisfy me. I don't think a hot dog is any good if it doesn't make a mess. Ditto for da Reuben Dog, which had plenty of sauerkraut but barely discernible Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing.

There are eight other varieties and if you don't super-size the dog itself, you might want to add fries or potato chips and a drink for $1.49 extra. The owners are cool. Give them a try.

Hari rama artichokes

I don't recall the last time I ate at Calcutta (1138 Euclid Ave., 404-681-1838). I think it was the time I offended someone's religious sentiments by noting that the restaurant is decorated with pictures of Lord Krishna turned blue by the consumption of virgins.

We were literally alone in the restaurant a recent weekday evening. It was something of a shock to eat there after exploring more adventurous places like Zyka, Udipi and Madras Saravana Bhavan. The menu here, weirdly, includes artichoke and crabmeat dip and Cajun-chicken egg rolls — a concession perhaps to the pierced children of the suburbs who bring their vanilla palates to Little Five Points en masse every weekend.

Artichoke dip aside, Calcutta has been open since 1986 and probably gave many Atlantans their first taste of the subcontinent's spicy food. The restaurant still mainly does a good job. Prawn puri is pastry stuffed with chopped prawns in a creamy sauce. The filling is far better than the pastry, which is a weirdly heavy one, almost like an empanada, compared to the typical puff-pastry-like puri.

Chicken Kashmir, a curry featuring nuts and slices of banana, is sweet and pungent. Order some lime and mango pickles to give it a bit of a bitter edge. If you don't eat it over rice, order some garic naan to dip in the sauce. (Calcutta by the way serves a relatively rare naan stuffed with dried fruits and nuts.)

The one major disappointment of my meal was the lamb biryani. The basmati rice was undercooked whereas its peas were shriveled. The chunks of lamb were dry and the server gave me a miniscule portion of curry sauce. I resorted to mango chutney and mint sauce, left from an order of pappadam, to moisten the dish.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.



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