If you’re looking for a good reasonably priced restaurant in Philly’s museum district, Zorba’s Tavern, 2230 Fairmount Avenue, should fill the bill nicely. Situated in the shadow of Eastern Penitentiary, this diminutive father-son BYOB establishment boasts two colorful dining rooms, an open kitchen, and some very, very good Greek cuisine. Conveniently, there’s also a paid parking lot located just across the street.
To start things off, all the usual suspects are present and accounted for. You may choose from such items as dolmades, stuffed grape leaves with rice, onion & dill; grilled marinated octopus; skordalia, crushed garlic & potato purée; kalamari, batter-dipped fried squid; bouyurdi, baked feta cheese & tomatoes; and saganaki, fried cheese.
But the real test of a Mediterranean restaurant is their horiatiki (village) salata, or what has come to be known in the U.S. as simply a “Greek salad.” This is usually served in a large bowl and is meant to be shared among all diners at the table.
Depending upon the whim of the chef, the salad will likely contain chunks of tomato & cucumber, slivers of red onion, olives (both pitted and au naturel), feta cheese, and oregano… lettuce is optional. The salad we shared during our recent visit contained no greenery, which is not at all unusual. But the key to a great Greek salad, other than the freshness of the ingredients, of course, lies in the dressing – the proper proportions of oil, vinegar, herbs, and other seasonings. Zorba’s version is positively addictive. We found ourselves dipping in pieces of bread to soak up every last drop… The perfect prelude to your meal.
Entrées offer a variety of possibilities, including seafood, vegetarian, lamb, pastas, and a variety of dishes grilled over charcoal. We desperately wanted to try the “Fisherman’s Feast” for two – salmon, tilapia, rainbow trout filets, and two shrimps roasted over charcoal – unfortunately the dish was not available the night of our visit.
My wife finally settled on “Shrimp Poseidon,” shrimp grilled over charcoal simply adorned with olive oil & lemon and garnished with wilted greens, tomato & cucumber. The crustaceans were at the peak of good health, properly crunchy, plump and flavorful.
I decided to take the vegetarian route with the Imam Baldi, a dish that I have sampled on numerous occasions and always enjoy. The presentation consists of eggplant stuffed with sautéed onions and tomatoes that is cooked in olive oil and topped with a savory tomato sauce, herbs, and feta cheese.
Imam Baldi (Bayildi) literally means “the imam fainted.” The name supposedly derives from a tale of an imam (leader of a mosque) who swooned with pleasure at the flavor when presented with this dish by his wife… Other more humorous accounts suggest that he fainted upon hearing the cost of the ingredients or the amount of oil used to prepare the dish. Whatever your interpretational leaning, Zorba’s rendition of this vegetarian classic is absolutely delicious on all counts.
Most main courses are generously accompanied by mixed vegetables, rice, and potato. The vegetables, I would add, are prepared in the traditional Greek manner, teamed with tomatoes, garlic, oregano, lemon, olive oil, and are roasted for a long period of time. They are served well beyond al dente, quite soft, in fact. But that extended roasting unleashes a host of incomparable flavors. If you have never tried vegetables roasted in the Greek style, you are in for a rare treat… The potatoes, prepared with olive oil, chicken stock, lemon, and oregano are also not to be missed. Potatoes, vegetables, and rice are also available as side dishes.
When it comes to dessert, the baklava, which was being cut into individual portions when we arrived, is positively benchmark and highly recommended. If you wish to accompany it with your usual postprandial beverage, just be advised that Greek coffee is made in a specially designed long-handled cylindrical pot called a briki, is served in a small demitasse cup with foam similar to espresso, and is very, very strong… It can also be extremely sweet. If you’re accustomed to having your espresso unadorned, as I am, be sure to specify sketos, without sugar. Also keep in mind that thick coffee grinds tend to settle on the bottom of the cup… so this is one coffee that is definitely NOT good to the last drop!
As noted above, since Zorba’s Tavern is a BYOB restaurant, just don’t forget to tote along your vintage of choice. If you’d like to indulge in a preprandial cocktail before settling in, Rembrandt’s, 741 North 23rd Street, directly across from Zorba’s on the other side of the parking lot, is a personal fave. And Jack’s Firehouse, 2130 Fairmount Avenue, is just a block away on the same side of the street.
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