2020 Central Road, Fort Lee
Just around the corner from Fort Lee's restaurant row, you'll find a narrow, unassuming building with a stucco faade and a maroon awning emblazoned with the name Santorini Taverna. A slogan on the awning promises healthy Mediterranean cuisine, and that's mostly what you'll find inside. It's pretty good food, too. Santorini Taverna, which owner Evangelos Rizos opened about three years ago, is more welcoming than its exterior appears. A warm, dark marble bar occupies the entrance, offering a full array of liquor, as well as a few types of Greek wine and Chimay beer, a Trappist import from Belgium.
The dining room just beyond holds a dozen candlelit tables, paintings of Mediterranean vistas, and a ceiling mural of Greek mythological figures replete with discuses and lightning bolts. Glass double doors open onto a lovely patio with as many tables, a brick fireplace and an herb garden.
Our weekday evening meal started out shaky. Though we were the only guests in evidence, the restaurant was out of octopus (a Greek place with no octopus!), liver and the first Greek wine we ordered. But things picked up once the appetizers arrived.
The skordalia, a cold dip of whipped potatoes and (plenty of) garlic, and the tzatkiki, a cold dip of yogurt and cucumber, paired well with wonderfully toasted wedges of pita. Greek sausage (loukaniko) tasted just like your basic excellent Italian sausage, and meatballs made of beef, lamb and rice (keftedakia) were a touch too dry but were seasoned nicely.
The final appetizer of the evening, a skillet of pan-fried shrimp smothered in sautéed tomatoes and onions and sprinkled with kefalograviera cheese (garithes saganaki), pleased everyone but me. The half dozen shrimp were plump and juicy, and the lemon-drenched vegetables were plentiful, but I felt the dish tasted strongly of iodine.
Entrees were all very enjoyable. The pork souvlaki platter included melt-in-your-mouth chunks of meat that tasted fatty (in a good way) without being fatty, and the accompanying lemon potatoes and cucumber-heavy salad filled out the dish.
A special of two porgy, a type of Mediterranean white fish, arrived at the table whole despite having been ordered filleted, but the server volunteered to debone and prepare the meat, which was firm and flavorful. And the pastichio, a small pot of tubular pasta baked with meat, cheese and béchamel sauce, was far from saucy but tasted very good.
Winning the evening was the arni giouvetsi stamnas, a shank of slow-cooked lamb laid atop a bed of orzo baked in tomato, onion and kefalotiri cheese. The modest portion of lamb was tender and delicious, benefiting nicely from the perfectly cooked orzo and heavy dose of cinnamon infusing the dish.
Dessert consisted of three separate orders arranged artfully on one plate. Two slices each of classic baklava and of galaktoboureko, a pastry of custard-filled phyllo, surrounded a heap of Greek yogurt topped with honey and walnuts. All three were very good, particularly the thick, crumbly yogurt, which included a bit of goat's milk.
Despite a few minor hiccups, Santorini Taverna is worth a trip. It's no voyage to the Greek isles, but it might convince you to take that leap.