Varka Estiatorio

Varka Estiatorio
Ramsey, NJ

The wife and I are about to move back to the suburbs...more particularly, our old home town in Bergen County. We've found a lovely home to call our own. And it comes with an incredible kitchen that I can't wait to use.

But dining out, historically, in this area has been less than exciting. Sure, there's the Saddle River Inn (expensive), Aldo's (yeah the spiedini is good but everything else is eh), the Brickhouse (great steaks), Savini (god awful food and possibly worse service), the Allendale Bar & Grill (love the owners but the food leaves much, much, much to be desired), Kinchley's/Nelly's (great pizzas but little else) and a couple of places in Ridgewood that aren't worth the menu prices.

But things are changing. The suburbanites have gotten a taste of Manhattan's recently reinvigorated dining scene (its hard to deny that the last few years have been a renaissance of sorts) and want some of it for themselves.

And the suburbanites are on top of the trends as well. Greek restaurants, by many accounts, will be the big thing in the first half of 2007 (I'm counting on Scandinavian cuisine to reach a crescendo by Oct. '07), and Bergen County has two terrific examples of it: Axia Taverna in Tenafly and Varka in Ramsey.

Varka is a surprisingly large space. The looks of it from outside plus the lighting and separation of rooms inside really stretches it out. Perhaps anything is bigger than most restaurants (discounting the monstrosities on 10th Avenue of late) in New York.

We got a table in the slightly more formal and better lit back room. We received our menus from a pleasant and very knowledgeable waitress who recommended we check out the display of fish they were serving for the evening. So we walked to the display to see a wide assortment of seafood items including Malpeque oysters, Black sea bass, dorado, langoustines, arctic char, barbounia, loup de mer, fagri, king crab legs and more.

The restaurant also offers a couple of meat selections (NY Strip, lamb chops, chicken breast) as well as some a la carte seafood options (swordfish, halibut, wild salmon, etc.) but the real reason for eating here is the whole fish selections as described above.

The fish are ordered by the pound - so some fish, like the fagri (firm, white snapper-like fish) from the Mediterranean are best shared (2 lb fish). They come with a bowl of steamed vegetables of the day - today was brocoli and cauliflower. Meh.

Diners this evening included my sister (her birthday), her fiancee Tim, my dad, Danna and myself. Here's what we got - and since we all shared, I can tell you a little bit about each.

Saganaki - The classic hot cheese (Kefalograviera) was served as a big square, though unlike some places, was not served oozing and dripping or somewhat still aflame. This was a more mellow preparation that was good, but not the best of its kind.

Crab Cakes - these had very little breading - a good thing, but they were served at room temperature. Blech. We needed to have them brought back and reheated, but by then, the thrill was gone.

Calamari - We opted for the pan fried (as opposed to grilled) version and were treated with an excellent version. It was served with two excellent dipping sauces - one green and one red. I can't recall what exactly they were.

Mussels Ouzo - Fantastic. Not for those who dislike liquorice, as the ouzo flavor was well pronounced. I really liked this variety.

Shrimp Santorini - Shrimp are baked with white wine, tomato broth and feta cheese. I didn't try this but by all accounts it was very good.

For entrees:

I wanted the langoustines ($44/lb.) and regret changing my mind (too concerned with price) but was pleased with my choice of royal dorado. Simply prepared with Mediterranean herbs, olive oil, caper berries and deboned for me, this was just right.

My dad and sister shared the fagri, which was excellent and similarily prepared.

Tim went for the NY Strip. It was served to the requested temperature, and was a surprisingly large portion. Tim can eat, and yet had trouble getting through half of it. The quality and taste was just fine but the seafood is really where its at.

Overall, I look forward to having this place in my regular rotation. It's nice to see some good new restaurants opening in NJ and confess that its easing my mind about the move. The vegetable sides could be a little better, but keeping one's menu regional to the Mediterranean in winter doesn't necessarily bode well for the diner. I bet the spring and summer will show some better entree support.


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