While dining at Skara Estiatorio, a year-old Greek restaurant in downtown Caldwell, I had an epiphany. And then I realized that the word comes from the Greek, meaning a revelation. What Skara makes manifest is that traditional Greek cooking, with its array of salads and spreads and its charcoal-grilled fish and meat, is one of the world’s great, timeless cuisines. And Skara, a 70-seat storefront with a lovely blue Aegean mural, is the all-around best of the dozens of Greek tavernas and fancier estiatorios I’ve reviewed in the United States and Canada over the years.
Skara opened last March as Kefi Taverna. When a Manhattan restaurant of that name got wind of it and trademarked the name, owners John Kananis and Manos Angelopolos rechristened their place Skara—skara being the Greek word for the traditional charcoal grill they use. At the same time, the partners upgraded from Taverna to Estiatorio.
“We started with taverna,” Kananis, 42, told me over the phone after my visits, “because that’s where the Greeks go for the best food. But tavernas classically have a more luncheonette feel, whether in Greece or here. Paper tablecloths, no decent glassware or silverware. We cook our food with the TLC of tavernas in Greece, but the dining experience is more of an estiatorio.”
That is true. In addition to off-white linen tablecloths and blonde wood chairs with upholstered seats, Skara has rough-hewn stone columns, a Greek key design in the flooring, fine tableware, and that tiled mural of Mykonos and Santorini, painted by the owner of Art Devons, the framing shop next door.
“What we’re cooking is the real Greek food that Greeks eat,” Kananis said. In Greece, “a place wouldn’t last a week serving reheated moussaka cut from a lasagna pan, or sad pink tomatoes or yesterday’s shrimp. Greeks go to the hole-in-the-wall on the side street, where Yia-Yia [Grandma] or Uncle Yiannis is cooking the century-old recipes.”
Kananis’s parents emigrated from Athens just before he was born in 1972. He grew up in Jersey City and Bayonne, “a Jersey boy at school, a Greek kid at home, where the stove was busier than the TV.” He worked “front of the house in mom-and-pops” and managed Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses in Weehawken, Parsippany and Tarrytown, New York. “Then I dabbled in tech startups for a while,” he related. “But restaurants are my true calling.”
In November 2014, Kananis was about to move to Greece for a few years when Angelopolos called. His old friend was planning to launch a Greek restaurant in Caldwell, but his partner had suddenly dropped out. He convinced Kananis to step in, “nonrefundable airline ticket and all,” Kananis says with a chuckle.
Angelopolos, 54, Skara’s chef, grew up in Athens and cooked all over the Greek capital, including “the highest volume restaurant in the city, inside the central food market,” he told me. That no-frills eatery, intended for the market’s fishermen, farmers and purveyors, “was one of the few restaurants allowed to stay open all night—so the disco people would come here after the clubs.”
Angelopolos settled in New Jersey in 1986, founded a house-painting company and did some catering. “I’m happiest in the kitchen,” he said. Every morning, he makes the rounds of several fish and produce markets. “I buy only what looks beautiful.”
Angelopolos makes every menu item in-house, except for the pita and louganiko sausage, both imported from Greece. (The texture of the Greek pita, served toasted, makes the domestic stuff seem like Wonder Bread). Also not made in house is the beef “gyro cone.”
Beef gyro? “Turning classic Greek beef recipes into lamb is an American adaptation,” Kananis asserted.
I sampled 10 of Skara’s two dozen hot and cold appetizers. Each was superb, from lush tarama dip made with carp roe and olive oil to red-orange hummus, silky and smoky with puréed sun-dried tomato. The Skara salad was a wonder. Its baby spinach leaves and sliced strawberries, in a mustard dressing mellowed with Aegean honey, came topped with two generous slices of Manouri cheese, dusted with panko crumbs and sautéed in olive oil. The cheese was mild and nicely crumbly, the surface thin and crisp.
Skara’s excellent Angus-beef meatballs (Kananis considers trendy lamb meatballs “fake Greek”) are mixed with non-salty Colios feta and pan-fried. Skara aces pan frying. I’d recommend anything pan fried here: calamari; feta in phyllo; the zucchini patties called kolothiko keftedes. Bring them on. The tentacles of Portuguese octopus, Skara’s highest priced ($18) and best-selling starter, are boiled until tender. When an order comes in, a tentacle is brushed with lemon-infused olive oil and grilled on the charcoal-burning skara. The intense heat (up to about 1,200 degrees) produces a gorgeous char that adds to the eating pleasure. Skara-grilled octopus, squid and giant shrimp comprise the excellent $39 Sea Pikilia, one of six sampler platters.
Only three fish appear on Skara’s menu: North Atlantic salmon, lavraki (branzino) and tsipoura (Royale Dorade). Each lends itself to grilling (the branzino and dorade whole, the salmon as steaks). Basted with oil and lemon juice with salt, pepper, fresh oregano and extra-virgin olive oil, they emerge with crisp, charry skin and moist, sweet flesh. You can have at the whole fish or have it deftly filleted tableside. Either way, it’s so good nothing will be left but head and bones.
Moussaka, at $17 Skara’s lowest priced entrée, is its most labor-intensive. It is exactingly composed of layers of eggplant, potatoes, grilled zucchini, ground Angus beef and béchamel made from Greek Gruyère, mild feta and a bit of flour. Only about six roughly one-pound portions are baked daily, a good reason to get to the restaurant early.
Other notables include the tender chunks of lamb souvlaki; and another marvel of primal meatiness, rotisserie-broiled beef gyro, dusted with Thai paprika. The evanescent specials included a sumptuous braised lamb shank.
If you usually skip Greek desserts as sticky and cloying, order freely here. Baklava, deeply toasty and lightly honeyed, and a semolina cake aromatic with orange rind conjured Mediterranean bliss on a plate. Skara’s most-ordered dessert is ekmek, a three-layer marvel of kataifi (threadlike, crispy phyllo) under thick vanilla custard under whipped cream sprinkled with walnuts. I tasted it and passed the colossal serving around. The plate came back clean.
Everything I tasted at Skara was the apotheosis of its kind. There you go, another great word we can thank the Greeks for—much as we can thank Skara for its (Greek vocabulary alert) iconic food.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Greek/Mediterranean
Price Details:Appetizers, $7-$18; entrées, $12-$32; sampler platters, $17-$39; sides, $6-$8; desserts, $7
Ambience:Seaside Aegean retreat
Service:Professional and knowledgable