True confession. I was once in love with someone called Danny. And no, it wasn’t a woman with the name Danielle. In fact, even though Danny possessed all the magnetism of a woman’s wiles, Danny wasn’t a woman at all.
Danny or, more commonly, The Danny was a place.
The Danny was what we called Danforth Avenue in Toronto. The Danny was the main drag in Toronto’s Greektown and, back in the seventies, late on any Saturday night, it was the place to be.
Those were the days of Toronto The Good. Where they’d roll up the sidewalks at 11:00 pm. And if you wanted a drink after that less-than-witching hour, you headed for The Danny.
The plan was always to leave the bar where we’d tanked up for the journey by 10:30 and get to Astoria or Acropolis, Kronos or Kalyviz before the cut-off for alcohol at 11:00. We never did of course. It was usually at least 11:15 when we’d arrive and Nikolai or Gnossos or Cristoforo or Petros would shake their heads as they uncorked our bottle of Apelia, our favorite red, under the table. It was not only the Greek wine that didn’t taste of pine tar, Apelia was also the one that came in a 1000 ml bottle.
The restaurants had no menu. Just a well worn path to the kitchen where you’d peek at but never poke at a row of pots and pans filled with all the pleasures of Greece and where I’d always pick stewed lamb, moussaka, roast potatoes, green beans and rice.
We’d sing along to the bouzouki music making up what we thought Greek words should sound like but ending up with what Russian words sound like. We’d tell the same dumb jokes (What’s a Grecian urn? Oh, about 60 drachma a week). We’d list all of the Greek islands we planned to visit on that Aegean cruise we knew we’d never take. And, after most of the wine was gone, we’d play a game we’d invented called philosophoolery which was about making up gobbledygook lines like:
“What if justice is superior to injustice because it is the effortless harmony of the internal elements of the soul.”
I’ve changed a lot since those days and so has Greece. These days, Greek ruins usually refer to the country’s fiscal system. And Greek mythology is thinking there’s some way out of the mess.
The Danny has changed a lot as well. It’s still about ten blocks of 1920s two storey storefronts but all around it has changed. It’s now harder to find a house under $700K in the hood than it is to find one over $700K in Detroit. The Greeks are mostly gone. But their restaurants are still crowded. Run today by their children and their children.
I’m still in love with The Danny. And I still go there often. Not at 11 o’clock at night but at one in the afternoon. And I still drink Apelia but now it comes in a 750 ml bottle with a screwtop and I prefer the white.
But what to do when you spend half your life in the middle of Mexico, 3000 miles from The Danny. Well in that case, you go the equivalent or, even better, the equivalent comes to you.
Now some of you might think that Greek cuisine in the middle of Mexico might be bordering on the impossible. But remember this. Zorba The Greek was actually Mexican. What, that’s Greek to you? Well if you remember the movie, you’ll remember that Zorba was played by Anthony Quinn and played very well by him. Well, before Anthony Quinn was Anthony Quinn, he was Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca and was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. Just thinking about the film makes me want to do his dance. Avoiding the crouching parts of course.
San Miguel de Allende’s equivalent of The Danny is called Greece On Wheels. And with an email or telephone call, you can transform your home to a taverna on an Aegean island.
I had seen the founder/owner/chef dancing as usual in her regular spot at San Miguel’s monthly flea market, La Pulga. Seeing her twist and scoop and spin reminded me it had been a while since I’d enjoyed the fine food from Greece On Wheels and also a while since The Gentlemen Who Lunch had got together. Last week, I killed two birds with one you know what.
Greece on Wheels is run by Sylvia Stamatakis who, if looking Greek gave you credibility, would have none at all. Sylvia is blondish, originally Canadian. She’s a woman who went to Greece, met a man, and ended up running a taverna on Crete. Then a couple of years ago, after 23 years in Greece, she began cooking the same things in San Miguel de Allende for people like The Gentlemen Who Lunch.
When she first started the business, Sylvia’s menu was quite simple. These days it’s very diversified. With some dishes that you’d rarely even find in any of the twenty or so 21st Century tavernas on The Danny. I was very anxious to try one dish she listed in her weekly email. Because it included a meat that is probably the most under-appreciated meat in the world. And a meat that’s only under-appreciated because, before it becomes meat, it’s got a cute turned up nose, floppy ears and a fluffy fur coat. Yes, I’m talking about rabbit and, in this case, rabbit slowly braised in a red wine sauce.
With rabbit the absolute definite main, I asked Sylvia to just surprise us with samples of as many mezes (a word I pronounce with the accent on the first syllable and she pronounces with the accent on the last) or starters (what people who don’t even want to pronounce the word call them) as our budget allowed plus a salad or two bridging the gap in between.
Sylvia Stamatakis is a woman who is always in a rush. But always one course behind everyone else. Always running, never walking. Always waving her arms faster than her lips. But though she may always be a minute or ten late, she always delivers. And always delivers good Greek. The table was set. We were ready for the feast.
First out were three dips. Tzatziki, hummus and melitzana. They came with our choice of pita chips or carrot and cucumber sticks to scoop up the tasty sauces. The tzatziki had the right amount of cucumbers and enough but not too much garlic. The hummus had a nice hint of lemon to compliment the ground chickpeas. The third dip was what Sylvia called melitzana and what Don Day calls eggplant salad. It’s also…or at least very similar to…what North African restaurants call baba gannoush. It combines eggplant with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper and subtle seasoning in a chunky sauce. I could lunch on just Greek dips but there was much more to come.
Spanakopita is a Don Day favorite. I’ve been known to go all the way to Athens for my favorite spinach pie. But I should also tell you that Athens is the name of a bakery in that district called The Danny. Spanakopita was the first food bonding experience I ever had with my first grandchild. OK, maybe I conned her a little by not telling her the pie was stuffed with spinach but everyone knows you can’t get most kids to eat spinach, or broccoli, or asparagus, or mushrooms without a little trickery. I still remember the joy of hearing those words, “Grampy, can I have some more green pie.”
Next up, our first taste of Greece On Wheels lamb. It was a dish the Greeks call melitzanes papoutsakia. It was what I call little shoes of stuffed zucchini topped with yogurt and feta. The tender lamb, creamy sauce and crunchy zucchini sang three part harmony.
The appies continued with dolmathes, those fat fingers of flavored rice wrapped in grape leaves. Sylvia told me, “In Crete, dolmathes are vegetarian. In the north, they usually include meat.” We, of course, wanted them to include meat and Sylvia included ground lamb. She buys her lamb whole and butchers it herself. One of the toughest decisions I had was whether to have her baby lamb with roast potatoes and green beans (just like in those Danny days) or the rabbit as our main course. She did a little compromise for us, putting the avgolemono sauce she puts on the braised lamb on our dolmathes.
Greece On Wheels‘ rabbit dish is called kounelli krasato. I sneaked a peak at it simmering in the kitchen and started humming a little Carly Simon. Anticipation became infatuation when the dish was served. The rabbit was fall off the bone tender after being braised in the red wine with sauteed onions, celery and tomatoes.
Before the rabbit though there were the salads. Greek salad was just that. A mix of tomatoes, red onions, olives, feta cheese, lots of cukes and a fresh dressing with plenty of oregano.
I was feeling a little shaky about ordering octopodi salata for other people. Because octopus can be fall apart tender or it can be a rubber tire. I’d never had Greece On Wheels octopus before but I shouldn’t have been nervous. I asked Sylvia how she made it so tender.
“I don’t really do anything to it. It’s all about the freshness”, said Sylvia. “In Crete, octopus was everywhere. We’d hang it on lines to dry in the sun. And then slap it onto the rocks to tenderize it.”
“In San Miguel, there’s obviously no way to know how fresh it is. The secret is to buy it frozen. As long as it didn’t hang around too long before making it into a freezer, it will be just as tender as if it was freshly caught.”
Greek food shouts out wash me down with wine. And I would have loved to have picked up a few bottles of Apelia to make The Danny experience complete. But neither I, nor Sylvia Stamatakis, could find any Greek wine in San Miguel or anywhere else within driving distance. I ended up picking up a few bottles of a Chilean Carmenere/Cabernet Sauvignon that I’ve only ever seen at San Miguel supermarket Soriano because it’s good value and because its name, Travessia, sounds a little Greek to me.
I asked Sylvia to tell us a little bit more of her life story. About how she left her home in Southern Ontario while still a teenager and ended up in a corner of Crete. And you can’t have Sylvia Stamatakis catering your lunch and telling her tales without comparing her a little to Shirley Valentine. And you can’t have someone compared to Shirley Valentine without one of The Gentlemen Who Lunch doing their impression of Costas, the most typical of Greek lotharios. Ever the entertainer, Johnny Favourite did the best one:
“Boat is boat and…” Well hopefully you’ve seen the movie and know the rest of the quote.
We still had one course to go and what would a Greek lunch be, on The Danny, on the island of Crete or on Don Day’s table without baklava. The layered phyllo pastry filled with chopped nuts and soaked in honey was not too sweet as many baklavas can be. Plus it had a nice surprise dusting of cinnamon on top.
Sylvia Stamakis had finally stopped buzzing around and joined us at the table for a glass of wine. She told us, “I miss Crete. I dream about it often.” I told her “I miss The Danny but not very often.”
Because in the middle of the desert, there’s an island. Your very own Crete. Or Mykonos. Or Santorini. Or any of the 6,000 other islands in the Ionian or Aegean. And you don’t need a ticket. Just a computer or phone.
Greece On Wheels menu changes weekly. And the best way to know what’s cooking is to get on their mailing list. The email address is email@example.com. The telephone number is 044 415 112 5571. Some of Greece On Wheels’ dishes are also available at the health food store Natura, Ancha de San Antonio #39 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.