Where would the Garden State be without Greek restaurateurs? Dinerless, for sure. But much as we love diners, Greek cuisine goes way beyond gyros and iceberg lettuce sprinkled with feta and olives.
Lately, it seems, upscale Greek is on the rise—recent openings include Onasis in Cherry Hill and Axia Taverna in Tenafly. Varka, though two years old, still has the buzz of a hot, new place. Though the dining room is as big as a basketball court, the white tablecloths and dark wood chairs look soothing under the soft blue light that spills from the ceiling.
Varka’s alluring bar, with its comfy couches, is more than a holding pen. The entire menu is available there, along with cocktails and wines from a list of more than 100 wineries. Many bottles are less than $35. Greece’s fast-improving wineries are represented by worthy producers such as Hatzimichalis and Antonopoulos.
Executive chef George Georgiades, a first-generation Greek-American who most recently helmed Avra in Manhattan, designed his menu around fish. Varka’s focal point is a nine-foot-long wooden replica of a Greek fishing boat, or varka, placed at the rear of the dining room. Spotlights are trained on the sparkling daily catch, arranged on the ice-filled deck of the boat.
The menu divides its nautical bounty into two categories: house selections with set prices, and the varka display, priced by the pound for the whole fish. Fillets such as salmon and halibut were deftly grilled in time-honored Aegean style, with only olive oil, salt, and lemon juice. Their delicate flavor emerged intact, but the buttery taste of a pan-seared tuna steak was bullied by a bitter coat of cumin and mustard seeds.
Diners are encouraged to choose a whole fish from the varka. The selection is rubbed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, then grilled whole, filleted in kitchen, and sprinkled with oregano and ladolemono, a lemon juice and olive oil vinaigrette. (Georgiades cooks lamb and steak on a separate grill. His lamb chops were nicely meaty and smoky. But a thick strip steak lacked flavor.)
Management says waiters are instructed to tell patrons the uncooked weight of the whole fish and let them do the by-the-pound math. I ordered a whole fagri (a Mediterranean snapper). The waiter brought the raw fish to the table and simply said, “This is the smallest one we have.” I nodded my assent without knowing the weight. A mistake, it turned out. That fish, while wonderfully fresh and flavorful, was much too big for one and cost $48.72 (at $29 per pound). A better policy would be to simply tell diners what the fish will cost.
Appetizers range from very good to irresistible—the latter including the deep-fried zucchini and eggplant slices known as “Varka chips,” and perfectly textured grilled octopus. Classic Greek desserts, such as baklava, and yogurt with honey, are delicious, too.
The glitch is service, and not just the whole-fish sticker shock. Greetings, smiles, and friendly advice make a big difference in the dining experience, and at Varka those niceties are not quite shipshape.—K.T.H.
30 North Spruce Street, Ramsey (201-995-9333), varkarestaurant.com. Lunch: Monday through Saturday, noon to 3:30 pm. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 3:30 to 10 pm; Friday and Saturday, 3:30 to 11 pm; Sunday, 3 to 10 pm. American Express, MasterCard, and Visa are accepted. Wheelchair access easy.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:European - Greek/Mediterranean