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“To me, tavernas are the soul of the Mediterranean,” says Peter Hajiyerou, a native of Cyprus who now lives in Glen Rock. “Fresh fish, fresh air, friends. Jersey needed a real taverna as good as Astoria, Queens—or Greece.”
In the dining room of the Edgewater Greek Taverna (or even on the patio, with its stunning Hudson River view), it’s easy to forget you’re in the City Place mall between Claire’s Accessories and Baumgart’s cafe. Hajiyerou asked Fort Lee architect Stephen Leventis to recreate his ya-ya’s (grandmother’s) house in Cyprus, with weathered pine floors, stucco walls, and stone arches supporting a timbered ceiling. Not from Ya-ya’s playbook are medieval French doors and modern, ceiling-suspended pinlights accenting the bistro-like banquettes.
“I didn’t want fake Greek,” says Hajiyerou, 51, who used to own diners and IHOPs. In August, he opened a second Greek Taverna in Montclair, supplementing the first, which opened in 2006.
The Montclair restaurant struggles to achieve the ambience of its sibling, largely because it is retrofitted into the Excelsior Stables building, a fine 250-year-old landmark. But with its big dining room, towering ceiling, wall of French doors, open kitchen, and not a stitch of sound insulation, what you get is a clattering din.
For the time being, Greek Taverna’s two chefs zip back and forth between the two restaurants. Aleka Tsamis, from the Peloponnesus of southern Greece, won acclaim at Philoxenia, a top Astoria kitchen. Emilio Simon came up in distinguished Manhattan restaurants such as Molyvos and Kellari; he was born in Puebla, Mexico, but speaks fluent Greek.
The essence of taverna is simple, fresh food, including lively dips, salads, and grilled fish. The Greek Taverna menus are true to their inspiration. There are more than five dozen dishes plus daily specials, and portions are big. Entrées include luscious, nutmeg-scented moussaka. (A moussaka ordered in Montclair had little more than a skin of béchamel topping.)
The menu leans toward hot and cold appetizers, grilled seafood, a few baked specialties, and chops. There are surprises like roasted beets with skordalia (garlicky potato purée) and tomato salata (tangy goat cheese, less salty than feta, with red onions, capers, Kalamata olives, and Jersey plum tomatoes).
The goat cheese reappears in katsikisio, baked to a creamy consistency with big, tangy-sweet, dried apricots, which emerge from the bubbly cheese irresistibly plump and moist. The only problem with a katsikisio ordered in Montclair was too few apricots. Once they were gone, the remaining cheese sat there like tap shoes without the tap dancer.
Melizanosalata—a wonderfully smoky eggplant concoction silky with yogurt—can be ordered on its own or in a pikilia assortment with skordalia, yogurt-and-cucumber tzatziki, and cod-roe taramosalata.
Spanakopita of feta, leeks, and spinach in phyllo dough are served as a quartet of triangles, perfect for sharing. Cheese-filled kalamari gemisto—baked, stuffed squid—are filled not just with the usual feta but with four Greek cheeses that ooze onto the plate. Edgewater’s best-in-show starter was ouzo keftedes: Black Angus beef meatballs blanketed in tomato sauce spicy with cumin and subtly sweet with ouzo. It’s a must order.
Greek Taverna’s fish, hand-picked every other day at Hunt’s Point Market in the Bronx, range from a mild white Aegean lavraki (sea bass) to a substantial North Atlantic black sea bass. In Montclair, impeccably fresh red snapper and sea bass were slightly overcooked, dull, and dry. Seafood entrées tote a side dish, and two stand out: briam, stewed vegetables savory with tomato and garlic, and Greek Taverna chips, lightly battered, pan-fried zucchini and eggplant slices.
Meat-eaters won’t do better than the arnaki tis gatras, tender lamb braised in a clay pot in the tomato sauce that Greek Taverna does so well.
Desserts are made in-house by Aleka, and they are delicious, from superb orange-scented almond-flour cookies to classic honey-drenched baklava and galaktoboureko custard.
Service in Edgewater is well-meaning but can be forgetful. Montclair needs to train and inform its confused staff and wake them up with strong Greek coffee. But Montclair will feel more like a warehouse than an Aegean aerie until it does something about its noise problem.