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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Offbeat Offerings: Left to right: taramosaláta; a plate of pastitsio, dolmades and spanakópita; horiátikisaláta.

Your Pal Is Athena

Santa Clara grill is food fit for a goddess

By Stett Holbrook

A CO-WORKER placed a copy of Athena Grill's menu in my mailbox with a note saying it was a Greek restaurant worth checking out. I confess I didn't look at it for several weeks. I like Greek food but I wasn't in a hurry to visit another gyros-and-falafel joint. But when I finally took a look at the menu, I went to the restaurant the next day.

The Santa Clara restaurant serves the aforementioned standards you'd expect, but the menu goes deeper and offers authentic Greek dishes you're not likely to find elsewhere. After visiting for lunch and dinner, I wish I'd gone earlier. Athena Grill not only serves some of the best Greek food in Silicon Valley, but the bargain prices and friendly atmosphere make it a real find.

Chef and owner Vasiliki (Vaso) Kidder was born in southern Greece and moved to the States when she was 16. She owned a Greek restaurant in Hayward (Cafe Vasiliki) for 25 years before retiring about six years ago. But retirement didn't suit her well, and she opened Athena Grill three years ago. The recipes she cooks with come from her mother and both her grandmothers, so you know you're getting the real thing.

The restaurant occupies a corner in an area dominated by high-tech offices but short on dining options. That may explain the crowds at lunch. Inside, there's a communal table and several smaller tables. In good weather, there's outdoor seating. The walls are decorated with Greek seascapes and mementos. On the glass counter in front of the kitchen, Kidder sells bottles of Kalamata olive oil from her orchard in Greece. She posts daily specials on a long sheet of butcher paper hanging near the cash register.

I fell in love with Athena Grill after my first bite of the arnáki pita ($7.95) sandwich. The warm, chewy pita bread is served open-faced and layered with thin slices of juicy grilled lamb, and piled with roasted red bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and feta cheese. The addition of fresh spring greens and tzatziki (a yogurt dip with cucumber, garlic and herbs) make this a strong contender for my sandwich of the year. The only disappointment was the side of Greek fries served on the side. They were good as far as fries go, but lacked the advertised "Greek spices" that had piqued my interest.

I also loved the fasouláda ($3.75), a hearty, herby white bean soup made with a tomato base. It's a nourishing and earthy vegetarian soup that could pass as a meal on its own.

In addition to the creamy and tangy tzatziki, Athena Grill serves a number of excellent dips and spreads. My favorite is the melitzanosaláta ($3.50), a bright and light mixture of roasted eggplant, roasted red bell pepper, green and red onions, garlic, parsley and olive oil. Also try the tirokafteri ($3.50), a creamy blend of feta, metzithra and ricotta cheeses blended with spicy peppers and olive oil. The hummus ($3.50), however, is not my favorite. It's good and garlicky, but I found it a little pasty; I prefer a creamier version. For another starter, try the falafel meze ($4.95). What sets this dish apart is the addition of fava beans to the traditional garbanzo bean mixture. The result is a richer, more vegetal-tasting falafel.

On to heartier fare, pastitsio ($8.95) is a hulking pasta and meat pie, tubular noodles atop a thick béchamel sauce over a rich ground meat sauce redolent with the flavors of clover and nutmeg.

Star Trek fans know the Horta as a rock-drilling monster, but at Athena Grill it's a delightful dish of broiled dandelion greens tossed with olive oil and lemon juice ($4.95). It's a simple, satisfying side dish that went great with the grilled lamb chops ($10.95), a trio of tiny but plump chops bathed in a tangy, herb and garlic­laced marinade. The excellent biftékia ($7.95) reminded me of kobideh, the Persian ground beef dish. At Athena, three patties of ground round are mixed with various spices, sautéed onion and garlic and broiled until they're charred outside and still juicy within.

The one dish that missed was the loukánika ($7.95), a mildly spicy Greek pork sausage. The flavor was good but the sausage was too dry.

While it's hard to find, Greek wine promises to be the next big thing because of its great value. Athena Grill serves a few Greek wines made by the Boutari winery, such as the Gewurztraminer-like Moschofilero ($25 bottle) and an Agiorghitiko ($45 bottle), a hearty red wine.

Kidder makes a changing variety of desserts fresh each day. The orange-flavored ranvani ($2.95) was light and moist. Even better was the ekmek ($2.95), shredded phyllo dough filled with a creamy, almond-flavored custard topped with whipped cream. After all the good food I had at Athena Grill, I'm going to start checking my mail inbox more often. Who knows what other menus are lurking in there?

Athena Grill
Address: 1505 Space Park Dr., Santa Clara.
Phone: 408.567.9144.
Hours: 10:30am-9pm Mon-Fri.
Price Range: $4.95-$10.95

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From the March 1-7, 2006 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2006 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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