Fellow food reviewer Michael Ryan and I were strolling along the Santa Monica Promenade when we saw the sign “Greek Food.” A lovely young woman smiled at us and invited us in. When we learned that the restaurant — Stop’n Cafe — had been there for 25 years, we were encouraged. Is the promenade that old?
I love Greek food. The dishes I look forward to in a Greek restaurant are moussaka, various dips, and baklava for dessert. Turkish coffee is also a treat although, of course, I don’t use the “T” word in a Greek restaurant.
Another young lovely came over to take our order. As is my custom, I asked for something a bit different than on the menu to see if the restaurant follows one of my main dictums, “the customer is always right.” So I asked if we could share a split order of hummus and eggplant dip, instead of one order of each.
“Of course,” said the lovely Elishah, who I promptly identified as an East Coast transplant.
The appetizer arrived with the customary pita wedges, and we dug in. Michael immediately noticed that the hummus was a bit weak and thin, without much garbanzo bean flavor. But the eggplant dish (baba ganoush) had real texture and serious garlic flavor, and was delicious.
During our appetizer we watched what was being served to our neighbors. We saw an attractive plate with a yellow chicken kabob smelling of rich saffron. At the next table we saw some fried calamari rings, but they looked over-fried with the wrong kind of batter, although the three dipping sauces looked good. We asked Elishah what was the most popular dish, and she said that the gyros sandwiches were very popular, as well as the various kebobs.
But fixated on my favorites we decided to split a moussaka. I make this at home often, and have enjoyed it in Greece, southern France (where about 15 percent of the population is from Arab countries, where it is a popular dish) and throughout the Middle East.
The ideal moussaka consists of layers of ground or shredded lamb and slices of eggplant, baked with a tomato garlic sauce and covered in a béchamel sauce. The lamb and the eggplant must not be overcooked so that they lose their identity, but must be merged into complimentary tastes.
This moussaka did not meet the test, and I was pretty sure the chef was not Greek. First of all it was made from ground beef instead of lamb. The eggplant was cooked so much that it merged into the meat and lost its texture. There was not enough cumin flavor nor the acidity of a good tomato sauce. But the béchamel sauce was perfect.
While it wasn’t very good as genuine moussaka, it wasn’t bad as a lasagna dish, as Michael pointed out.
For dessert we shared a piece of baklava, which had a touch of cinnamon flavor, but was too dry and craved more honey. I loved the Turkish coffee, but Michael found it too strong for his taste.
A good time was had by all. Elishah was the best part of the meal. And the loud music on the promenade is always a distraction. Next time we go there we will sit inside, which is richly decorated with pictures of movie stars from the 1940s and ‘50s. Michael says that he hopes Elishah will wait on us.
If you go
1237 Third St. Promenade
Santa Monica, Calif.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.