Tuesday, August 24, 2010




I absolutely love the flavors of Greek food, so this restaurant was a true pleasure for my palate. Throw in a little belly dancing, flaming cheese, and remarkably gracious service, and it was a feast for the senses!

Vassiliki Batzakidou (“Vasso”) opened The Greek Place three years ago on the north-east corner of Winchester and Jefferson. She had found success with her first restaurant of the same name in Idyllwild, and left her son in charge to bring her authentic Greek culinary skills and warm Greek hospitality to Temecula. Her obscure location (behind the car wash) certainly does not do her food justice, but those who have taken the time to find her, are in for a treat.

Vasso herself is a true gem. She is the perfect Greek Mama, and she cooks and servers and entertains with flair. She’s the kind of woman who greets strangers like friends, friends like family, and everyone with a smile, a hug, a big plate of food and a cold glass of wine. She has a warm enthusiasm that radiates through her eyes and, most importantly, is a superb cook.

Upon entering, the restaurant feels bright and welcoming, with the requisite blue-and-white-checkered tablecloths. But the décor is unfussy and fresh, not a Greek caricature. The friendly atmosphere is comfortable for a casual lunch, a family meal, or a nice dinner date, especially with all the entertainment Vasso has provided.

On Fridays and Saturdays, patrons are treated to belly dancing and accordion music. We had the pleasure of being there when Nikkal Feyrouz was performing. I love watching talented belly dancers, and I was expecting a lot of enviable hip shimmies—but I was not anticipating three-foot knives being balanced on her head as she gingerly danced on glass dishware. Wow! There was also audience participation by a few brave souls, which is always good for a laugh. In between performances, Veronika Huggins, a trained concert pianist, provided the light dinner music on her accordion, playing everything from traditional Greek music to Frank Sinatra to La Bamba.

But the entertainment doesn’t end there. Our server Tasos, originally from Corinth, was quite the charming and funny host. He has a real passion for Greek food and Greek wine and loves sharing it with guests. Vasso is often busy in the kitchen, so it’s nice that her energy and enthusiasm is channeled through her staff.

But of course, the real star of the show is Vasso’s food! In fact, one of the dishes—Saganaki—is a performance in itself. I still can’t believe that I’d never encountered flaming cheese before, and I don’t think I can have cheese any other way after this. Saganaki is a special Greek cheese bathed in brandy, dressed with a squeeze of lemon, then lit aflame at the table. But it’s not all in the presentation. The taste is sinfully heaven: sweet, salty, tangy, and oh-so-creamy. Opa!

We enjoyed the cheese with a glass of Retsina, the traditional Greek white wine that, like Ouzo, people have strong opinions about. Vasso says that in ancient times, sailors used to transport it in pine barrels sealed with resin, and eventually the wine took on this flavor. First a mistake, it became tradition, and is now intentionally fermented to carry this strong character. Following the adage, “When in Greece…,” I tried it. I love it, so I’m feeling quite proud of my new-found Greek-ness.

Vasso also insisted we try the Lamb Chops—not on the menu, but those “in-the-know” ask for this expertly prepared meal. A customer, who had travelled from Banning just for the meal and entertainment, commented that “a lot of people don’t know how to cook lamb and it tastes too gamey. But this is perfect.” And he was right. Succulent and tender, it cut with a butter knife. And the nuanced secret recipe of spices paired splendidly with tzatziki sauce and a glass of the Rodetes (Greek rosé wine).

The most popular dish is the Chicken Souvlaki Plate, chicken skewers served over rice with a Greek salad. I’ve had this dish elsewhere, but never has the chicken been this moist and juicy! And her rice is not just an obligatory after-thought. It too was cooked perfectly and seasoned with those delicious Greek spices I love so much.

But my true test for a Greek restaurant is the hummus and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), so I asked to sample appetizers. Being the generous Greek hostess she is, she complied with not just tangy hummus and perfect dolmades, but also super savory falafels and her fun Fire Feta with warm pita bread. The Fire Feta was thankfully more flavorful than fiery, and the falafels were surprising spicy and super moist. This is not your food court Greek food; this is what I imagine Greece tastes like!

Our Greek tour ended with the quintessential dessert, Baklava, which was by far the best I have ever tasted. Most baklava is made too sickly sweet or flakey dry for me, but Vasso’s homemade delicacy is extremely moist with the perfect amount of sweetness. Another addictive dessert is Kataifi: shredded filo dough, vanilla pudding, syrup, walnuts and whipped cream. Very sweet but very light and refreshing. Or you can enjoy the simple yet scrumptious Greek yogurt drizzled with honey and walnuts. It is a tangy and sweet compliment to a flavorful meal.

So, whether you’re a long-time fan of Greek food or just want to try something new (including belly dancing), I encourage you to visit Vasso at The Greek Place. The food, the warmth, the charm, and the entertainment will not disappoint. Taste of Temecula will have its August 18 Lunch Meet-up at The Greek Place, and Vasso promises a special treat for all. Opa!

The Greek place is located at 27326 Jefferson Ave Suite 17 (Northeast corner of Jefferson and Winchester). Call 951-296-5674 or visit them online at http://thegreekplace.blogspot.com.

Nikkal Feyrouz, Belly Dance: nika@thedancingbelly.com; 909-908-0927 
Veronika Huggins, Russian Concert Pianist/Accordion Player: nikahuggins@msn.com; 952-609-8302

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Best Greek Food In The Valley

Dishing Mediterranean food in Temecula

Courtesy of the Valley News

Shannon Starr

Managing EditorFriday, February 8th, 2008. Issue 06, Volume 12.

Greek food comes with certain expectations.
I expect a little personality with my meal. I was not disappointed when I visited The Greek Place on Jefferson Avenue in Temecula.
Owner Vassiliki “Vasso” Batzakidou infuses her personality and warmth into everything she does.
She brings her grandmother’s recipes into this century but doesn’t forget where she learned them.
“I remember the first dish I cooked when I was 13 years old,” Batzakidou said during an interview at her restaurant. “It was meatballs. My grandmother sat and told me how to put it together, the meat, the rice and the spices.”
On that Greek island Batzakidou said it was as if a lightbulb went on over her head. The raw ingredients, the mixing and the cooking and then someone had something good to eat. She got it.
Just one bite of Batzakidou’s pastitsio and you know grandmother taught her well. The layers of chewy macaroni, lightly-seasoned ground beef and the velvety creamy béchamel sauce create a warm and hearty comfort meal.
But I get ahead of myself.
We started our meal at The Greek Place with a bottle of Retsina, a traditional Greek white wine which, according to Batzakidou, gets its name and taste from the pine resin used to seal the casks.
For the spices and seasonings of Greek food, including the olive oil, the saltiness of the olives, the feta cheese and also the lemon flavors, Retsina can stand on its own, helping the palate to transition to a new taste or texture.
These tastes and textures included the appetizer sampler with creamy cool tzatziki, hummus, dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), fire feta (roasted red peppers and cheese), feta cheese with olives and hot fresh pita bread.
This was an array of tastes that we should have spent more time with, and it also needed more people.
As Batzakidou delivered the food I felt that something was missing and that something was a large group of happy friends who would also dive into the garlic hummus, red pepper feta chess mix and stuffed grape leaves with us.
Next, the rest of the food arrived: a huge plate with a Greek salad and bulgur topped with gyro meat, chicken souvlaki, falafel patties and the aforementioned heavenly pastitsio.
The gyro meat was tender and juicy and the chicken souvlaki served on a skewer was nicely cooked and seasoned. Between bites of the meat, the bulgur and the salad, we were enjoying ourselves a lot.
While falafel isn’t a Greek food, Batzakidou explained, customers have come to expect the Middle Eastern dish on the menu and she doesn’t want to disappoint them. The fried chick-pea patties were delicious and I let my husband have the last one, with some regret.
With me enjoying the gyro and him noshing on the chicken we tried our best to finish the feast but it proved to be too much food for us.
The final course of this Greek Feast for Two was baklava and coffee, which was served just as the belly dancer started.
The Greek Place has a belly dancer. Batzakidou admits the dance form also is not Greek, but, she said with a shrug of her shoulders, “I’m Greek. We like to please people.”
Now here is where my husband faced a dilemma. Fine flaky filo dough, crushed walnuts, cinnamon and honey or a hot sultry blond dancing enticingly.
Let’s just say I would not want to compete with Batzakidou’s pastry making skills.
The Greek Place is at 27326 Jefferson Ave., Suite 17, in Temecula. Information: (951) 296-5674.
Lunches include gyros in pita bread served with French fries ($7.95) salads ($5.95 to $11.95) and falafel, souvlaki and vegetarian plates ($8.95 to $9.95). Dinners range from $12.95 to $18.95, including Chicken Salonika and mousaka.
See coupon in our Coupon Corner insert or go online to http://www.myvalleynews.com/.