My Big Fat Greek Dinner
Photo by Anne Fishbein
Mama Voula’s is a new Greek restaurant in a classic Westside mini-mall, sandwiched between a kosher Iranian kebab shop and a Japanese teriyaki joint, hard by a Oaxacan restaurant and the drive-thru lane of a Burger King. Ulysses Voyage is a Greek sidewalk café in the Farmers Market vale of the Grove, a candlelit meze emporium set in a row of pasta mills, French brasseries and upscale smokehouses, like the Greek pavilion in a culinary Epcot. Detroit and Manhattan have dozens of places like Mama Voula’s, modest Greek restaurants serving good chicken souvlaki, fried calamari and avgolemono soup. Chicago has its share of lamb-grilling, “Opa”-shouting, saganaki-flaming cafés that accept American Express cards. Both breeds are pretty rare in Los Angeles.
Mama Voula’s and Ulysses Voyage have a strong, symbiotic relationship, with the sharp funk of garlic and charring meat, the flowing streams of cold Santorini wine, menus almost exactly alike give or take a few seafood specials, customers who shuttle between the two restaurants, and a killer gyro that combines the virtues of extreme lambiness with a sort of delicate, carbonized crunchiness that splits the difference between a cutlet and a Pringle. Village pasta may well be a staple in parts of the motherland, big tangles of angel hair smothered with a sort of chunky marinara tricked out with feta and Kalamata olives, but I have never seen the dish outside of the two restaurants. Blackened, curling octopus tentacles occupy the tables at both places, as well as tiny bowlfuls of the emulsified fish-roe dip called taramosalata and the cucumber-spiked yogurt called tsatsiki, hunks of pita and masses of steamed greens, tasty feta cheeseburgers and lemony roasted potatoes with everything.
More to the point, when the waiters at Ulysses Voyage mention Mama’s recipes, as they rather often do, it is Mama Voula’s recipes they are referring to. Mama’s son runs the front of the house at the Farmers Market restaurant, her daughter-in-law the one on the Westside. Mama Voula, a handsome, well-born blond woman who commands her namesake kitchen as if she were commanding a nuclear submarine, seems to be an overwhelming presence in both places, even when she happens to be in one or the other, even when she happens to be summering at her house in Athens.
What you eat at Mama Voula’s are grilled Greek sausages fragrant with cinnamon; tiny, whole fried smelts, slightly smaller than McDonald’s French fries, spritzed with fresh lemon; spanakopita, cheese- and spinach-stuffed turnovers about the size of Hostess fruit pies, that are of the tender-and-luscious school rather than of the oozy-cheesy variety. Greek salads are nothing special, I suppose, but the lettuce, chopped tomato and sweet peppers are especially fresh, the crumbles of herbed feta just tart enough: The salad tastes like summer. The pastitsio does taste as if somebody’s mother made it — Mama Voula’s version is more like an intriguingly spiced macaroni and cheese than like the intricately layered concoctions that often go by that name, light in spite of its jolt of béchamel, laced with meat and herbs. Dolmades, rice-stuffed grape leaves, radiate the scent of fresh dill. The smooth, cool rice pudding may even make you momentarily forget both the all-American product at the Grill and the rosewater-perfumed Lebanese goo.
Ulysses Voyage is a considerably fancier place. The grilled octopus is portioned out in fat tentacles instead of tough little babies, and the tsatsiki is more refined. The broiled rack of lamb is undeniably fashioned from a better cut of meat. You can get mussels, a delicious fava dip and giant herbed Greek beans. It is a date-night restaurant; Mama Voula’s is a rough counter joint whose cosmetics will be familiar to anybody who used to frequent the Philly cheesesteak dive that occupied the space until recently. But at Mama Voula’s, every wine on the short list is $15, flaming cheese runs $4.99 instead of the $10.50 at Ulysses Voyage, and that rack of lamb costs $12.99 instead of a cool quarter C-note — dinner for two is about half the price.
“Oh, everything at our restaurant is Mama’s way,” says the daughter-in-law. “Of course, everything at Ulysses Voyage is Mama’s way too, only maybe not so much sometimes. We have a French chef over there, and the food is a little lighter, more California-style, although always, always Greek. Here, it is all Mama. When you go to my mother-in-law’s house for dinner, this is the way you eat.”
Mama Voula’s, 11923 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-9464. Mon.–Sat. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking. Food for two, $14–$24. MC, V.
Ulysses Voyage, 6333 W. Third St., Los Angeles, (323) 939-9728. Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Full bar. Validated parking in Farmers Market lot. Food for two, $24–$48. AE, MC, V.
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