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Varka Estiatorio
30 North Spruce Street
Ramsey, Bergen County, New Jersey
(201) 995-9333

By 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). Fabulous!

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 figs.

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 also recommended.

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.

Cuisine: Greek/Mediterranean
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
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: License; interesting wine list
Price: Moderate/Expensive
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Website: www.varkarestaurant.com

The Artful 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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