10997 Route 116, Hinesburg, 482-6050
It's no big secret that here in Vermont, we are starved for Greek food. The only places with good gyros are actually Bosnian. Forget about trying to find saganaki or a good plate of keftedes. What is less well known is a phenomenon that occurs every Thursday night at Papa Nick's Family Restaurant in Hinesburg: Greek night.
Owners Nikos and Voula Zontanos serve their native fare only once a week and, when they do, they offer a great deal. For $16.95, you get four courses. It's not haute cuisine, more like what your Greek grandmother would make for Sunday dinner. Basically, it's the Mediterranean equivalent of the hot turkey sandwiches and burgers usually available at Papa Nick's.
The meal starts with lightly dressed Greek salad. The winter tomatoes were wan as expected, but the veggies were otherwise surprisingly fresh and flavorful. Covered in a hint of lemon vinaigrette and crumbles of feta, the plate was a refreshing taste of summer on a snowy night.
The mezethes plate was a little too heavy on the feta. The block of cheese was slightly chalky and, along with the tomato, went largely uneaten. The other three appetizers were more successful. The buttery spanakopita was full of oregano, a touch that made sense but was new to me.
Though the rice in the dolma was cooked to a glutinous mush, the stuffed-grape-leaf dish was otherwise delicious — an addictive little lemon bomb. The single crispy chicken wing was also lemony and covered in flakes of oregano. Essentially, the whole plate was a grouping of salty, lemon and oregano-flavored food, and that's just fine with me.
Entrée choices included moussaka and a Greek-style fish filet, but I couldn't resist the idea of the lamb shank. Would you look at that thing (right)? I certainly got value for my dollar. Unfortunately, when the shank arrived, it wasn't warmed all the way through. When I mentioned it, our server quickly whisked it back to the kitchen and returned with a steaming hot piece of lamb, covered in a thick sauce of tomatoes and finely chopped, but not wholly identifiable, vegetables. Certainly more rustic than lamb shanks I've had at other restaurants, this was simple, warming home cooking and I enjoyed it as such.
Like the rice in the dolmathes, the side of it that came with my lamb was overcooked, with a texture closer to oatmeal than rice. I wasn't a fan of the other side dish, either. The green beans stewed with tomatoes tasted strongly of can. It was a shame that the cuddly lamb didn't have more worthy accompaniments.
I also tried a mix of pork and chicken souvlaki. There were enough elements on the plate that it was easier to overlook the rice and beans. Both skewers were grilled to juicy perfection, but the pork seemed to absorb the herbaceous marinade slightly better than the chicken did.
The tzatziki was on the thick side but suitably tangy and filled with just enough cucumber. Warm sections of pita were a welcome starch in place of the rice and the trio of meat, substantial sauce and bread made for a satisfying meal.
Then, of course, there was dessert. Only one of the three options was strictly Greek, so I left my dining partner to the baklava and tried some rice pudding. Curiously, the rice therein was al dente. A sprinkling of cinnamon gave the dessert personality.
The baklava was excellent. It's no surprise that Papa Nick's does a business in take-home trays of the stuff. My most frequent complaint about that particular dessert is that many chefs oversweeten it, soaking the fragile pastry in syrup.
That's not the case at Papa Nick's. The layers of crackly phyllo were buttery but not honey drenched. The lower reaches of the hulking slab were redolent of cinnamon and cloves and ideally moist and chewy. If I had a Greek grandmother, I'm sure she couldn't cook like that. I'm glad Papa Nick's is there to fill the void.