404 West Marlton Pike (Route 70 East)
Cherry Hill, Camden County, New Jersey
(Restaurant Now Closed)
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
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
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.
Hours: Sun - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:00 a.m. -
Credit Cards: MC, V
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Handicapped Accessible: Yes