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Axia Taverna
18 Piermont Road
Tenafly, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 569-5999

By The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
February 12, 2007

Father and son Michael and Alexander Parlamis's Axia Taverna is a genuine restaurant phenom. Open only since the latter part of September 2006, it continually packs in weeknight crowds that most establishments would sell their gastronomic souls to entertain on free-for-all Saturday evenings.

But it surely deserves both the praise and the patronage. The ambiance -- the warmth of a free-standing circular fireplace as you enter, cozy walnut bar, glass-walled wine cabinets, banquettes awash with throw pillows, an intimate second-floor balcony, and two huge garage doors that open onto a patio in warmer weather -- is au courant but decidedly comfortable, the service is professional and exceedingly knowledgeable with regard to menu offerings, and Executive Chef Alexander Gorant's contemporary Greek cuisine is as exceptionally prepared and presented as the prices are reasonable.

Given Axia's popularity, my advice is to come early and enjoy a leisurely preprandial libation at the bar. You'll be treated to a variety of delicious complimentary olives and be able to spend a few quiet moments perusing the wine list before the crowds start rolling in.

The catalog of vintages, half of which are of Greek origin, is extensive; and, in addition, a number of excellent selections are available by the glass. Among the whites, the 2004 Boutari Moschofilero (Mantinia, Greece, $9.50) is crisp and dry with a nice touch of forward fruit. The 2004 HatziMichalis Chardonnay (Atalanti, Greece, $8.50) is medium-bodied and exhibits just the faintest hint of oak.

The Greek climate isn't terrible conducive to the production of red wines; but the two I sampled were excellent. The 2002 HatziMichalis Syrah (Atalanti, Greece, $8.00) is simple, straightforward, and fairly full-bodied. The 2003 Chateau Nico Lazaridi Merlot (Drama, Greece, $10.50), on the other hand, is decidedly elegant and easy on the palate.

In lieu of the traditional appetizer/entrée scenario, the menu is divided into "Small Plates" and "Big Plates," so diners may do a good deal of mixing/matching, should they so desire.

Among what would normally be considered conventional starters, the horiatiki ($9.00/$13.00), Greek salad, is a standout. Chunks of tomato and cucumber, olives, chopped onions, and a generous portion of delicious Dodoni's feta cheese are embellished with a simple but seductive dressing of olive oil, touch of vinegar, and sprinkling of fresh herbs. I would also highly recommend the gigantes patras ($8.00), giant butter beans set on a bed of peppery arugula and finished with lemon and olive oil.

But unless you're totally addicted to greenery -- which, I confess, I am upon occasion -- it might be wise to avail yourself of the numerous other small plate possibilities, as these surely show the chef at his most creative. The domatokeftedes salonica ($7.00), for example, is pure delight for the palate. Three delicately fried tomato and fennel fritters exhibit just the right flavor and consistency and are sided by a pleasantly potent celery yogurt dip.

The gemista apo thalassina ($10.00) -- tomatoes stuffed with chopped mussels, Maryland lump crabmeat, and rice -- is another absolute must... ditto a nightly special, ground lamb embraced by an ethereal pita pocket and surrounded by a sensuous sea of red wine sauce ($8.00), and the incomparable solomos methysmenos, ouzo-cured salmon ($8.00).

For those desiring more traditional mezedes, I would recommend the dolmadakia kriti, stuffed grape leaves ($8.00); melitzanosalata patmos, grilled eggplant dip ($5.00); and the fava mitilyni, yellow bean purée adorned with capers and onions ($5.00).

When it comes to the large plates, two time-honored classics, moussaka ($18.00) and pastichio rhodos ($17.00), are both without peer. The former, the traditional clay pot casserole, is endowed with tender slices of eggplant, luscious meat sauce, and topping of a béhamel that is just rich enough. The latter is comprised of perfectly baked tubular pasta, meat sauce, and béchamel, all in the loving embrace of a homemade phyllo shell. A circumscription of sautéed zucchini slices and cherry tomato halves adds a nice splash of color.

Within these precincts, as you would undoubtedly surmise, seafood also plays a significant role. And the most praiseworthy, in my opinion, is the peskandritsa me hilopites ($22.00), monkfish medallions. Often called the "poor man's lobster," monkfish bears the same delicate taste and velvety texture as its crustacean cousin. But also like its more expensive sibling, if improperly prepared, it can be exceedingly rubbery. The three medallions sent forth here, however, are sublimely tender and arrive at table on a seabed of homemade pasta and are finished with a delectable brown butter sauce.

And the youvetsi apo thalassina ($21.00) -- orzo baked in a clay pot with shrimp, scallops, feta cheese, and tomatoes -- is yet another marvelous presentation. I also enjoyed the salahi kastoria ($22.00), skate wing, especially the accompanying pillow of lemon-olive oil mashed potatoes (available as a side dish, $5.00). My only quibble is that the split pea-fava crust described as "crisp" was altogether too oily for my taste.

Desserts, like their predecessors, are homey yet imbued with a contemporary touch: the rich pudding is infused with a hint of chamomile and black pepper ($5.00); the homemade ice creams -- the baklava and Dodoni's feta cheese are particularly noteworthy -- are superb ($5.00); and the cored fried apple slices wrapped in pastry and sprinkled with cinnamon and toasted walnuts are a palpable hit ($8.00). I didnt have opportunity to sample the chef's selection of Greek cheeses ($8.00), but it is definitely at the top of my list when I make a return visit.

Warm, wonderful, and bubbling with bonhomie, Axia Taverna seduces the senses and should surely be on every New Jersey diner's "must try" agenda.

Cuisine: Contemporary Greek
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 12:00 noon - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Mon - Thurs, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 5:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 2:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: AX, DC, MC, V
Attire: Casual
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; interesting wine list with a preponderance of Greek vintages
Price: Moderate
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.axiataverna.com

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