Greek to Me
Greektown's Got Lots of High Points (Acropolis Isn't One of Them)
The food writer Jeffrey Steingarten opens his best-selling 1997 book The Man Who Ate Everything by explaining how, when he was appointed Vogue's food critic, he set about to divorce himself of his few but dearly held food phobias and prejudices, among them kimchi, anchovies, clams, and Greek food. Declaring "Greek cuisine" to be an oxymoron, he added, nastily, that "the British go to Greece just for the food, which says volumes to me." He did, through a strict immersion method, eventually succeed in conquering all of his food hatreds, including lard.
A recent and dismal Saturday evening dinner at Acropolis (4718 Eastern Ave.,  675-7882) in Southeast Baltimore's Greektown got me thinking Steingarten may have been too hasty, at least about Greek food. On this particular night (and I try not to go reviewing on Saturday nights) not much was appealing about Greek food: not the overcooked vegetables, the mystery pieces of grilled lamb, and certainly not the low-grade feta and olives. Having to write an entire column about such a grisly evening felt like a further punishment, and neither did I really want to go back for the proverbial second chance. Instead, I decided to get busy, and I spent the next week trying to get my groove back.
The following Monday, I went to the Maryland Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Central Branch and read through the vertical files on Baltimore's Greek community. I quickly made a plan to visit Greektown during the daytime--something I had sadly never done--just to see what really remained from the old days. Were there still grimy little coffeehouses where the men gathered to play cards and gossip? I had no idea.
Two days later I hopped the No. 10 bus and returned to Greektown; this is what happened. I found one of the four or so extant coffeehouses, which are really more like 24-hour social clubs for retired men. I had a great cup of strong, viscous Turkish coffee and sat reading Daniel Spoerri's inspiringly zestful Mythology and Meatballs: A Greek Island Diary Cookbook in a haze of Greek and cigarette smoke. The two dozen or so men there all were playing cards, but I'm too shy to ask what game they were playing and far too inept to think about joining in. I'm glad I came alone because, although I was greeted warmly by the proprietor, I felt somewhat intrusive. I'll let you find this place yourself--it's the one with Greek writing on the window that the locals call Ellas.
I bought a cool-looking jar of quince preserves at the Greek Village Bakery and Delicatessen (4711 Eastern Ave.,  675-8155) and the prettiest piece of baklava I've ever seen--the size of fist and topped with pistachio meat--at the Greek Town Bakery (4705 Eastern Ave.,  276-8052). The baklava, enjoyed later, cut easily with a plastic fork and melted sweetly on the tongue.
For lunch, I chose ShamDanai's Chicken-n-Waffle House (4701 Eastern Ave.,  558-2110), which did nothing to help me in my Greek-food rehabilitation process but did tons to help me feel like a special person on Earth. For $6, I was given a freshly fried breast of chicken and two golden, saucer-sized waffles. I know the chicken was freshly fried because the waitress, who did everything but burp me and legally adopt me, told me it would take 20 minutes for it to be fried fresh. Of course it was wonderful, that salty, peppery piece of chicken, and the waffles were tasty, too. Baltimore is just about the last city in America to catch on to chicken and waffles (or catfish and waffles, which the waitress kept pushing me to get). Sometime during my 20-minute wait, someone started bringing a fresh batch of joy-inducing sweet-potato pies out from the kitchen. I bought one of them ($10) and took it into work, where I'm now regarded as a provider of manna.
The next day, when snow was general all over Baltimore, I read my horoscope in the January Vanity Fair. It basically explains away the bad Greektown meal as part of a long period of malaise, now ending, for all of us Aries, and it concludes with this unsettlingly beautiful two-word sentence: "Welcome back." I almost cried right there in Barnes & Noble.
On a sad note, Mount Vernon's Ruby Lounge (802 N. Charles St.,  539-8051) will be closing sometime around the end of the year; the space is being bought by the owners of the Bombay Grill Indian restaurant. Make sure you stop in for a last Ruby Cocktail, and to tip the staff lavishly. And to pay your respects to Lisa (aka Cornbread), the meanest hostess in Baltimore.