When you step inside the faux Greek farmhouse that is Estia Taverna in Marlton, the first thing you see is a glistening display of fresh seafood on ice—whole dorades, silvery sardines, snappers paved in iridescent coral scales.
Estia Taverna is the more casual offshoot of Estia in Center City, Philadelphia. The owners, brothers Pete and Nick Pashalis and brother-in-law John Lois, also run the two Philadelphia coal-oven Pietro’s pizzerias, which for many years had a third location in Marlton.
“We were sending a lot of our [Marlton] customers to Estia in Philadelphia, and they were coming back very happy with the food,” Pete Pashalis told me on the phone after my visits. In the last two years, though, Marlton’s pizza business sagged. Meanwhile, Nick Pashalis explained, “our Greek restaurant has shown a consistent annual growth in business. We felt that Greek food is a healthy and delicious alternative for the health-conscious consumer.”
So the family swapped pizza pies for spinach pies, totally transforming Marlton and reopening it in March as Estia Taverna. Judging by the well-heeled crowds on both my visits, the switch is a smash with the upscale Cherry Hill/Voorhees/Marlton set. Now, Jerusalem limestone floors click underfoot, and canvas hangs from the arched ceiling like sails on a boat plying the Corinthian coast of Greece, where the Pashalis brothers were born and raised.
As at Estia in Philadelphia, the Taverna’s menu revolves around seafood. Smaller fish, like lavraki (branzino) or dorade, are brushed with olive oil and grilled whole over charcoal, then deboned and presented head to tail. The plate usually includes juicy steamed horta. In Greece, horta are foraged bitter greens. At Estia Taverna, horta is a mix of red and green Swiss chards, spinach and chicory. Larger specimens, like tilefish, are cut into thick steaks and baked in the oven plaki style, with peppers, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, white wine and fish stock merging into a chunky, robust ragù. In each case, my fish revealed moist, flaky flesh under crisp skin.
Chef Oscar Chavez, a native of Pueblo, Mexico, is clearly comfortable cooking Greek-style seafood. (He opened Estia eight years ago.) His shrimp were plump and tender, whether grilled and dressed with olive oil, lemon juice and brandy or sautéed saganaki-style, with fresh tomato, feta, garlic and a shot of ouzo. Calamari turn to rubber if overcooked, but Chavez delivered them moist and tender, whether as lightly floured fried rings or as grilled tubes stuffed with feta and manouri cheeses, basil and mint. Grilled octopus was wonderfully smoky over fava-bean hummus. (They owed their suppleness to 40 minutes of tumbling—I kid you not—in a clothes-washing machine.) Whole lobster, par-boiled, halved and grilled, possessed a terrific smokiness that complemented the meat’s natural sweetness.
Estia chips—crisp fried zucchini and eggplant slices served with dense tzatziki, heady with dill—should not be missed. Lamb chops are marinated for three days in olive oil, lemon, oregano, rosemary and thyme, then broiled just enough to yield a caramelized exterior and an herbaceous, medium-rare center. Moussaka made with ground beef and veal, subtly perfumed with cinnamon and nutmeg, amounted to a primer in Greek comfort food. Rigatoni Grecca, in an ungainly large portion, packed a lot of flavor—salty feta, bright white wine and spinach.
Simplicity can be a virtue, but across Estia’s menu I experienced a numbing repetition of ingredients and preparations. Desserts, too, were one-dimensional, and that dimension was the hyper sweetness that often plagues Greek and Middle Eastern desserts. While Estia’s prices are not exactly steep, they are certainly high enough to call for a bit more creativity and variety than the kitchen musters.
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