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March 5, 2004

Take a cue from the goddess of wisdom and discover Chicago's Greek cuisine

Chicago has a reputation for amazing food. I write restaurant reviews. Therefore, whenever anyone comes to visit me, I'm responsible for making sure we eat well. Even I am hard-pressed to find a believable excuse to justify living off of Pad See Ew from the Snail every Friday and Saturday (despite my lingering fondness for that Hyde Park mainstay). So when my mother and brother flew in for a weekend visit, I knew that in addition to showing off my cavernous room in the Shoreland and favorite nooks and crannies around campus, it was the perfect time to show off my restaurant and CTA savvy.

Since we had tickets to a play later in the evening, we didn't want to stray too far from the bright lights of the Magnificent Mile. Because we'd put off making reservations until the day of the show, we didn't have the luxury of eating at one of the restaurants in the theater district itself. Luckily, when we wandered into Greektown, we had no problem getting a table at Athena, and the trip was a short bus ride to Union Station on the CTA 28 and only a few blocks' walk.

Named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, useful arts, and prudent warfare, Athena, located at 212 South Halsted Street, is a slightly more formal, larger version of its next-door neighbor, Rodity's (a personal favorite of mine). The décor is relaxed but elegant; there are high ceilings, intricately painted murals with Greek motifs, and gas fireplaces in the back of the room. Unlike at some large restaurants, Athena's dining room is divided into smaller areas through the use of pillars and half walls. Despite the number of tables available, this makes for an intimate, toasty feeling. The prices are reasonable, too; only two entrées on the regular menu are over $20 (lamb, in both cases), and most range from $10 to $15 for portions generous enough for two people.

The menu is extensive, and everything looked delicious. After much debate and vacillation, we finally decided on calamari fritti (battered, fried squid), spanakopitaka (a spinach and feta cheese mixture wrapped and baked in filo, a thin pastry dough), and gyros (thinly-sliced beef with onions, tomatoes, and tzatziki, a garlic and cucumber yogurt sauce) for appetizers. The calamari was tender, golden, and irresistible, especially when drizzled with freshly squeezed lemon juice. The spanakopita and the gyros were also delicious; the spanakopita were like flavored puffs of air, and the gyros were savory and perfectly done.

Dinner marked another difficult round of decision-making. Unable to pass up that night's special, I had a delicate, calzone-like filo shell stuffed with lamb, peas, potatoes, and chickpeas. The filo was lightly browned and flaky, while the lamb and vegetable mixture that poured out when I broke the shell was moist, mouth-watering, and hearty on its bed of rice. My roommate had a combination platter of several Greek dishes, including mousaka (layers of eggplant, zucchini, potato, ground beef, and cheese, topped with béchamel sauce), pastitsio (baked macaroni mixed with ground beef and cheese, topped with béchamel sauce), and lamb (served with rice, potatoes, and vegetables), all delectable and beautifully presented. My brother had lamb loin chops, which came with rice and vegetables. The lamb chops were tender and perfectly cooked to his specifications. (Caveat emptor: he ordered them medium rare, which, at Athena, means seared brown on the edges, pink for a few millimeters, and distinctly blood-red the rest of the way to the center). My mother had a large Greek salad, which was crisp and fresh.

All the entrées were wonderful and enormous. We would have done well to observe the people at the tables around us before ordering—no one left without taking food home. However, even with the generous portions, we ended up ordering dessert. I tried a dish of I'd never heard of before and have since forgotten completely. I only remember it was strange to pronounce and consisted of layers of sweetened, baked angel hair pasta, a creamy filling, honey, and whipped cream. Oh, and one more thing—it was delicious. We also ordered rice pudding, baklava, and chocolate mousse, but in the end, we were all so full that desserts were a communal experience—we each took a small bite of everything and relented.

We left Athena content, if overfed. Each of us carried a doggie bag filled with at least one full meal of leftovers. The chilly night air crinkled the plastic of the bags and snuck in under our coats and scarves, making us long for the cheerful fireplace we'd just left. Catching a bus to the theater, we knew memories of Athena would be with us longer than either the leftovers or the handful of mints my brother hoarded from the dish by the door.