30 North Spruce Street
Ramsey, Bergen County, New Jersey
The Artful Diner
Special to nj.com
April 24, 2006
Over the past decade, numerous restaurants have inhabited the space at
Ramsey's 30 North Spruce Street. After several recent visits, however, it is
abundantly clear that Varka Estiatorio, which celebrated its first
anniversary on March 23rd (2006), will be a major culinary force in the Bergen
County area for many years to come.
The attractive interior resonates with a seductive flavor: rustic plaster
walls, wide plank flooring, model sailboats in cozy niches above the bar, a
plethora of wine cubes and cages, and the soft glow of flickering candlelight
on snow white napery. But the center of attraction is clearly the spotlighted
swell of shimmering ice populated by impeccably fresh treasures of the sea
augmented by a colorful array of lemons, red and green peppers, and round
loaves of crusty peasant bread.
The gastronomic formula, which majors in Greek/Mediterranean fare, is a
relatively simple one (though perhaps unfamiliar to New Jersey diners):
Piscatorial possibilities are chosen from the eye-catching display; selections
are then weighed, grilled over an open fire, filleted in the kitchen; and, at
the last, adorned with lemon, herbs, and a touch of butter before making their
final journey to table. If patrons decide to pursue this option (and there are
others as well), they are charged by the pound rather than per entrée.
My favorites among the whole fish selections, which may be sufficient to
serve two or three diners, include: Royal dorado ($23.00 per pound), a native
of the Mediterranean that is similar in texture to the American red porgy but
infinitely more flavorful; tender and flaky black sea bass ($22.00); and loup
de mer ($26.00), Mediterranean sea bass. I also like the fagri ($29.00), a
Mediterranean white snapper that requires a good deal of manual dexterity to
maneuver around the abundance of bones -- but the deliciously firm flesh is
worth the effort.
On the other hand, should your taste run more to crustaceans, you might
consider the Maine lobster grilled in the shell ($25.00 per pound), delicate
Mediterranean langoustines ($44.00), or the sweet and succulent Alaskan king
crab legs ($37.00). Whatever your preferences on a given evening, however, I
guarantee that you will not be disappointed.
And Varka's "Fish House Selections" provide diners with yet
another seafood option. The halibut steak ($25.00) is beautifully grilled,
pristine of countenance, and presented on a sumptuous seabed of spanakorizo
(spinach and rice); the swordfish ($24.00) is also grilled and is pillowed on a
luscious mound of roasted eggplant mashed potatoes; the Chilean sea bass, on
the other hand, is baked to just the proper consistency (this is one denizen of
the deep that should be cooked through rather than translucent at the center),
set on slices of tomato and sweet Vidalia onion, and finished with a light but
exceedingly flavorful tomato/herb broth.
My wife, however, found it difficult to resist the considerable charms of
the grilled Gulf jumbo shrimp ($27.00). The crustaceans were marvelously
crunchy and obviously at the peak of good health. And the presentation was
particularly attractive. Four shrimp were arranged around the periphery of the
plate, while a fifth crowned a scrumptious square of eggplant-potato moussaka
at the centrum.
Regarding carnivorous pursuits... It has long been my contention that anyone
who orders red meat in a seafood restaurant has a death wish. But you need have
no fear, as Varka's executive chef, George Georgiades, an alumnus of
Avra and Le Bernardin in Manhattan, completely blows my theory out of the water
(pun intended). The Black Angus filet mignon ($30.00) is a velvety, sensuous
delight and sided with excellent fresh-cut fries. But even better are the
charcoal broiled lamb chops ($32.00). Rubbed with just a touch of olive oil and
fresh herbs, they are incredibly moist and flavorful. The best lamb it has ever
been my pleasure to ingest, bar none. And if you should decide to take the red
meat route, be sure to order a side of lemon roasted potato wedges ($5.00).
Appetizers and desserts are on the same high level as the entrées. Among the
former, two favorites come immediately to mind: The "Shrimp
Santorini" ($16.00) -- crustaceans baked with white wine, tomato broth,
and feta cheese -- is always a palpable hit; and the very same may be said for
the lusciously tender grilled calamari stuffed with feta, tomato, fresh herbs,
and garlic ($13.00).
But there are also a number of sleepers here that are well worth trying. The
roasted beets ($8.00), for example. They are marinated in olive oil and red
wine, cut into bite-size chunks and slightly chilled, and then arranged around
an epicenter of zippy skordalia -- a Greek dip comprised of whipped
potatoes, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and variety of spices -- that plays
extremely well against the sweetness of the beets. And the homey presentation
of gigantes ($7.00) -- imported giant lima beans that are slowly braised
in a light tomato broth rife with leeks, scallions, onions, and dill -- is
gastronomically profound in its apparent simplicity.
Even a rustic Greek tomato salad ($14.00) hits all the right notes. Tomatoes
are red, ripe, and juicy; cucumbers, peppers and onions are pristinely fresh;
kalamata olives and two large vertical wedges of feta cheese add immeasurably
to the mix; and the catalyst that brings it all together is a light but
assertive oil and vinegar dressing infused with herbs and splash of lemon.
Among the desserts, the karidopita ($6.00), classic Greek walnut
cake, is dense and delicious and companioned by a dollop of ice cream enlivened
with Moroccan spices. The loukoumathes ($7.00), Greek-style donuts
served with honey and cinnamon, is another winner and quite suitable for
sharing. But don't sell "Uncle Nick's Cheesecake" ($6.00) short. It
is homemade, incredibly creamy, and given a nice Grecian flair via preserved
Varka has an attractive bar area, so I would urge you to arrive early
for your reservation -- as we did on several occasions -- and enjoy a quiet
preprandial libation and take some time to peruse the first-rate wine list.
Choices are cosmopolitan in scope, with some very nice Greek wines available by
the glass. The 2003 Kouros ($7.00), a light-bodied white is particularly
pleasant; and the 2003 Agiorgitiko ($8.00), a rustic red from Peloponnese, is
Depending upon your menu preferences and vintage selections, an evening at Varka
will undoubtedly not be an inexpensive proposition. Be that as it may, given
the superior quality of the cuisine and the service, this is one restaurant
that is surely worth the expenditure.
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Sat, 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.; Dinner: Sun - Thurs,
4:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 4:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major except Discover
Attire: Smart casual
Reservations: Recommended; essential on weekends
Alcohol: License; interesting wine list
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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