Mention Greek food to any resident of Toronto and they'll say one word and one word only: Danforth. Although Danforth Ave. is named after Asa Danforth, Jr. - an early American settler who, down on his luck, decided to invest in Canada -, the area is actually the home of the largest Greek population in North America (according to the website). So when my fiancee and I met up with her Greek friend Ted for dinner, it was pretty much a no-brainer.
Once we got to Danforth, a stretch of street several blocks long was jam-packed with Greek food. They ranged from fine-dining, fancy places to basically glorified Gyro stands, any of which, I was assured, would be the best Greek food I've ever had. Coming from Los Angeles, I had to admit that Greek was one cuisine that I felt I was short-changed on. Other than a few select restaurants (Taverna Tony in Malibu stands out), it was basically the Greek fast food place Daphne's (which is, well, fast food). Needless to say, I was excited.
We settled upon Astoria Shish Kebob House (I knew it was going to be good because it was spelled "kebob" instead of the Anglicized "kabob"), mostly due to the fact that it was right across the street from where we met Ted and his girlfriend, Eva, and we were all extremely hungry.
The decor was nothing special. I mean, when you walk into a place called "Shish Kebob House," I think it lowers the expectations on decorations. It was predictably Greek, with paintings of the old country strewn about the walls.
The menu had all the staples of a Greek restaurant: spanakopita (spinach pie), mousaka (basically a Greek lasagna), dolmades (stuffed grape leaves). One notable exception was the gyro, but I assume since there are several take-out spots within the area that specialize only in the gyro, Astoria decided to stay away from the seasoned lamb-beef combination.
Their specialty, as Ted would tell us, was the souvlaki (skewers of meat served with a salad, rice, and fries or potatoes), so the four of us decided to go with the classic. The ladies both ordered the chicken, I ordered the lamb, and Ted ordered the pork (which had the vague yet intriguing distinction of being "Astoria's Award Winner" on the menu). My fiancee and I are a combined two feet taller than Ted and Eva, so we ordered the large portions and they ordered the small. I would regret this later when I was so full I could barely cough without tasting lamb and garlic in the back of my throat.
To start, we had an order of saganaki, which was described on the menu as "Kefalotiri cheese pan-fried and set ablaze tableside OPA!" After five minutes of trying to figure out what O.P.A. stood for, we were ambushed by a server carrying a plate of cheese. He promptly dumped some sort of liquor on it, dropped a flame onto it, and shouted "OPA!" (a-ha! It makes sense!). The fire blazed a good two or three feet in the air (inches from the fire sprinkler on the ceiling which, curiously, didn't go off) for several seconds before the waiter doused the flame with some fresh-squeezed lemon. The cheese was delicious, served with some fresh pita bread. And I have to admit, it's a good trick to get the endorphins going before you eat. I'm thinking of trying it with my next grilled cheese.
While we waited for dinner, we discussed the meaning of "opa". We asked Ted, who is fluent in Greek, and he couldn't offer an explanation. "It's just 'opa'," he said with a shrug of the shoulders. We finally settled that it was the equivalent of the Spanish "olé" or the English "yay", simply a word of celebration.
Next came our salads, which were outstanding. It was unlike the standard "greek salad" you can order at pretty much any restaurant. Astoria's version was fresh and flavorful, light on the olives (1) and heavy on the crumbled feta cheese (lots). The star, however, was the dressing, which was some magical combination of vinegar, oil, and lemon. I rarely finish the complimentary salad before a meal, but I was licking my plate and wishing for more with this one. Tremendous.
As any good salad should do, it just made me that much more excited for the entree. Again, I was not disappointed. The lamb was tender, the rice was flavorful (covered in a light tomato sauce), and the fries were crisp. I tasted the chicken and it was more of the same, extremely well done and full of Greek spices and flavor. The big surprise to me, however, was the tzatziki sauce that accompanied each dish.
I've had tzatziki before, and I like it, but this was unlike any tzatziki I've had for two reasons: 1) the yogurt was homemade and 2) they used what they call "the perfect amount of garlic" which turns out to be a lot. The garlic level bordered on too much, but when blended with the meat it was truly perfect. No false advertising here. Looking back on the other tzatzikis I've had, they tasted more like Dannon plain yogurt with a few onions and cucumbers in it. Astoria definitely gave me the best tzatziki I've had.
Overall, the meal was great. We were all stuffed, but it wasn't the all-you-can-eat buffet stuffed. It was more like the fine-dining 10-course tasting menu stuffed.
We skipped dessert so we could walk down the street to Athens Bakeries for my first taste of "honey balls". Those, my friend, deserve their own post.
I couldn't have asked for more from my first trip to Danforth, and it's safe to say that I'll never look at Greek food the same way. Unless, of course, we make it to Greece on our upcoming journey to Europe.