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The Artful Diner writes restaurant reviews for nj.com. To receive e-mail notification when a new review or article is posted, send a note to artfuldiner@verizon.net.
Athens Café
404 West Marlton Pike (Route 70 East)
Sawmill Village
Cherry Hill, Camden County, New Jersey
(856) 429-1061

(Restaurant Now Closed)

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
December 8, 2003

When my wife and I resided in Cherry Hill -- and I had not yet assumed the role as NJO's professional "hired belly" -- we found ourselves chowing down at the newly opened Athens Café several times a month. Joined at the hip to a rather sad looking Wawa, the exterior wasn't terribly prepossessing. Once across the threshold, however, the welcome was warm and the atmosphere both inviting and energetic... and prodigious portions of nourishing Greek/Mediterranean victuals at less than extravagant prices kept the establishment's habitués coming back for more. Of course, that was fifteen years ago.

But even after we moved from the area, we still managed to return from time to time to feast on chef/proprietor Michael Stamatiades' hearty, homespun cuisine. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, Athens Café closed its doors in February of 2002. Subsequently, we discovered that Mr. Stamatiades had lost his lease when the Wawa with whom he had shared space decided to expand. His loyal clientele -- my wife and I included -- began suffering symptoms of acute gastronomic withdrawal.

Fortunately for all concerned, the period of deprivation was short-lived. Fifteen months later, in June 2003, the reincarnated Athens opened its doors in Saw Mill Village, just a mile from its former site. The spacious new digs may have effectively doubled the restaurant's seating capacity (from 52 to 99), but you know the moment you enter that it's still the same old Athens: mirrored walls, photographs of Greek ports-of-call, glass-topped tables, crisp white napery with peach accents. A delightful déjà vu.

... As is the food. It isn't terribly subtle and, as in most eateries, some items are infinitely better than others, but it remains as physically and psychically satisfying as ever. While you debate the issues, you can take the edge off your appetite by munching on a basket of pita bread. It is absolutely fresh, toasted just right, and the kitchen loves to keep it coming... so don't be shy about asking for refills.

Which brings us to the appetizers. And the best of the lot, in my opinion, are those that use the aforementioned pita to best advantage... namely, slathering up every scrumptious puréed drop of melitzanosalata ($4.95) or hummus ($4.95). The former is a lip-smacking blend of whipped roasted eggplant and tahini (sesame seed purée) blended with olive oil, fresh garlic, parsley, onions, and lemon juice. The latter sports puréed chickpeas and tahini jazzed up with garlic and fresh herbs. An ingratiating variation on the theme is the skordalia ($4.50), whipped potatoes redolent of garlic, drizzled with olive oil, and surrounded by thinly sliced red beets.

Other possibilities include: spanakopita ($4.95), delicate layers of filo dough filled with a mixture of fresh spinach, feta cheese, and fresh herbs; and feta cheese accompanied by kalamata olives and finished with olive oil and just a pinch of oregano ($4.75). Both are excellent. On the other hand, the soutzoukakia smyrneika ($4.95), baked Greek-style meatballs in a rather bland tomato-wine sauce, despite their enthusiastic menu buildup, are somewhat forgettable.

Soup or a small Greek salad is included with your entrée. The former, avgolemono, is good but not outstanding. I'd rather cast my lot with the salad, mixed greens replete with kalamata olives, green peppers, onions, and cucumbers. Feta cheese (always ask for a double portion), oregano, and a light and tangy herb-infused dressing add a nice finishing touch. My only gripe here is that, even when luscious Jersey beefsteaks are in season, your salad is still adorned with wedges of anemic Styrofoam tomatoes.

Main courses present the diner with a number of gastronomic options. You may, for instance, elect to travel the charbroiled route, selecting from a number of piscatorial possibilities (all at market price) or meaty matters such as sirloin steak ($21.95), London broil ($15.95), lamb chops ($18.95), or center-cut pork chops ($14.95). I would suggest, however, that you stick with the specialties of the house, as these are what the chef does best. Besides, you can chow down on steaks and chops at any restaurant; solidly-prepared Greek cuisine, on the other hand, is something of a rarity in these parts... so don't let this ready-made opportunity pass you by.

The moussaka ($9.75), for example, is a benchmark presentation and is accompanied by tourlou, mixed Greek vegetables ($3.50 as a side dish). Slices of eggplant, squash, onions, and tomatoes are slowly baked and presented swimming in a delicate pool of succulent juices. Also not to be missed is the pasta Athena ($5.95), tubular-shaped pasta tossed with feta cheese, butter, cream, garlic, and grated cheese.

Kota ala plaka ($14.95) is another excellent choice. A boneless breast of chicken is marinated in garlic, oregano, lemon juice, and olive oil, then charbroiled and presented with seasoned rice and the aforementioned mixed vegetables. Chicken may also be served up ala samos ($14.95), with green peppers, almonds, and raisins in a butter-wine sauce; falliraki ($14.95), sautéed with garlic, marinara sauce, mushrooms, oregano, and white wine; or santorini ($14.95), with green peppers, parsley, tomatoes, garlic, ouzo, and feta cheese.

On the other hand, if you'd prefer a touch of the sea, be sure to sample the special shrimp rodos ($15.95). Diminutive crustaceans are prepared out of the shell but with tails still intact, and are gently sautéed with fresh tomatoes, garlic, spinach, feta cheese, and white wine. And lovers of red meat can't go wrong with braised lamb ($12.95) simmered in a rich and hearty tomato-wine sauce accompanied by oven-roasted potatoes.

Of course, if you happen to stop in for lunch, lighter fare is also available: chicken or lamb souvlaki ($4.75), and the ubiquitous gyro ($4.75). You may even choose to partake of a luscious Greek-style hamburger ($5.50) served on pita bread and topped with a thoroughly enticing tzatziki sauce of yogurt, garlic, chopped cucumbers, and mint.

The homemade desserts are as bounteous as their predecessors but probably the restaurant's weakest link; and, given the more than generous entrée allocations, even somewhat superfluous. Baklava ($2.95) tops my list; bougatsa ($2.95), layers of filo and custard dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar, is good but not exceptional; and the rice pudding ($2.75) merely generic. A house-made tiramisù ($3.95) is also available.

Even after fifteen years, the Athens Café still knows the recipe for success: plenteous portions of outstanding Greek cuisine at more than reasonable prices. Add a relaxed and casual ambiance, competent and friendly service, and you know why the loyal legions -- this critic included -- keep coming back for more.

Cuisine: Greek/Mediterranean
Hours: Sun - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: MC, V
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Accepted
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Inexpensive/Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes

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