Seven-and-a-half years ago, when I became a newspaper food editor, this became my daughter’s favorite dessert. I didn’t even know what it meant.
I have George Georgiades to thank for teaching me and populating my Greek vocabulary.
As I left New Jersey in 2010 to return home, I realized there was no cuisine I had enjoyed as much as Greek. Driving home from our last stop on vacation Saturday night, as my daughter ate her galaktoboureko in the back seat, I reflected that no place did it finer or kept it purer than Georgiades’ Varka Estiatorio in Ramsey, N.J.
While living and working in Jersey, I dined at Varka at least a half-dozen times. There were other great Greek and Mediterranean places, including one with exceptional fish. And there were restaurants where I had superlative meals, like this place.
But for outstanding, fresh, eye-poppingly-expensive Greek, I chose Varka, not only for its quality but for the breadth of the menu.
It’s where I was formally introduced to — and became addicted to — these new words in my Greek vocabulary:
Saganaki: Kefalotyri cheese, made from sheep’s milk, tasting like a cross between feta and Romano but with a much softer texture, flash-fried in a pan, usually finished with a splash of ouzo or lemon juice. There is no finer treatment for cheese.
Keftathes: Beautifully seasoned meatballs, made with finely ground lamb. What puts these above and beyond is a light yogurt sauce bearing many of the flavors of tzatziki but none of the heft.
Yiouvetsi: A clay or earthenware pot, usually used for casseroles, but it also refers to the dish itself. I once had a great orzo in tomato broth baked in this. On the menu now is a chicken dish done this way.
Loup de mer: Also known as louvraki or sometimes bronzino, this is the fish for my friends who don’t like fish. At Varka, you pick your own from the iced display. It’s scaled, grilled whole, finished with an olive oil-lemon emulsion and served with …
Horta: Roughage. But the good kind. Well-seasoned greens, usually steamed and sauteed in olive oil.
And of course, Galaktoboureko: The word classically refers to a custard, but at Varka, it’s actually a custard duo. One vanilla custard is set inside a small, rectangular pastry and deep fried. It’s served warm topped with another custard — ice cream.
On Saturday, our bill — nearly $160 before tip for three entrees (tuna, halibut, grouper), two appetizers (keftethes, saganaki), two desserts (cheesecake, galaktoboureko) and a club soda — was steep, but reflective of the quality everywhere, from the bread basket (two kinds, plus hummus, sweet radishes and olives), to the depth of service.
The restaurant received 3 1/2 stars while I was the local newspaper’s food editor — only two restaurants out of more than 200 rated higher since then.
Varka is a treat. And on occasional visits to Jersey, it’s a pleasure to return.