Sunday, November 9, 2008

Grecian Delight

For a town that I initially thought seemed short on quality restaurants, New London seems to specialize in quality eating events. From Chilifest in the spring to Oktoberfest and Food Stroll in the fall, I've had plenty of opportunities to satisfy my stomach. And now, I think I have discovered my favorite food-oriented event of all: the Grecian Food Festival at St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church.

Last year Noe and I heard whispers of the Greek festival from the people who were starting to form our core group of friends, but we never got down there. We weren't entirely sure where the church was, we didn't really know people to go with, and we were both still kind of in a funk about moving.

This year, my mouth started watering the minute I saw the banner. There was no way I was missing out again. I marked the days on my calendar to make sure I wouldn't forget.

St. Sophia Hellenic Orthodox Church in New London, CT

St. Sophia does this festival as a fundraiser for the church. All the food products are donated by local stores and restaurants and the food is all homemade on the premises by parishioners. This was the 56th year of the festival, so obviously it works.

Noe and I attempted to go on Tuesday, the first night of the festival. According to the signage, food would be served until 9:00 PM. We went when I got done kickboxing at 7:30.

They had already run out of food.

Rather than be discouraged, this only made me want it more.

On Wednesday, I headed down with my coworker for lunch. We walked into a state of organized chaos. The place was packed.

Allow me to explain the set-up: we are talking about a fairly large church hall with a small kitchen at one end. Near the entrance to the hall are two long buffet lines set up with chafers of food. In between the two lines of tables are two lines of Greek women who attend the church, dishing out the food in the chafers. Diners grab a tray and silverware, get in line, and make their way past the chafers pointing to the food they want. At the end of each line sits a no-nonsense woman at a cash register to take your money. Once you've paid, you can either head to the bar in the little nook to your left to get a soda or some wine, or you can head directly to one of the large round tables crowded onto the hall floor. And no one can get out without walking right by the dessert table lining the wall near the exit.

I had every intention of getting a gyro for lunch, but I was temporarily swayed by the idea of oregano chicken (1/2 a chicken in an oregano and lemon marinade); Athenian shrimp (sauteed with butter, tomatoes and feta and served over rice); and of course, the thick and delectable-looking moussaka with its layers of eggplant, ground beef and Bechamel sauce.

In the end, I just got a gyro.

An example of a gyro;
though not nearly as glorious-looking as the ones I got.

These gyros are not like the gyros you get at food stands at the fair or in late-night diners (unless you have a really good Greek-owned late-night diner). The thin slices of seasoned lamb, fresh lettuce and tomato, slightly sour tzatziki sauce all wrapped up in a fresh, hot pita make for a combination I just can't ignore. Hot and fresh and bursting with flavor (and meat - it's a good sized sandwich) this gyro is worth every penny of the $6.00 I paid for it.

The other food is as glorious as the gyros: Noe's chicken oregano was moist and flavorful and the lemon in the marinade provided a fresh rather than overpowering flavor. The accompanying roasted potatoes with lemon, olive oil and various seasonings are good enough to eat on their own. The Greek salad with stuffed grape leaves and feta cheese topping a combination of vegetables is savory and filling enough to be a whole meal (and the special Greek dressing is amazing). Not to mention St. Sophia's serves some of the best rice pudding I have ever had - exactly the right creamy consistency with the perfect amount of cinnamon.

Of course we couldn't leave without some pastries; problem was, we were too full to eat anything. Luckily, St. Sophia's provided the perfect solution in the boxed pastry assortment: for $7.00 we got a container with several of the Greek butter cookies, bakalava, walnut cake, and more.

Box of dessert: too full to east it there? Take it home!

I am so sad this food festival is over. I can not believe I have to wait another year to eat this food again. But when I bite into that first gyro next year, I know I'll think it was worth the wait - it's that good.

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