Whenever my family and I are in Washington, D.C., we make a point of visiting a well-known address.… No, not 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but a location near there: the M Street NW site of the Astor Restaurant, a long-time favorite Greek eatery of ours. But alas, during a January visit to D.C. we discovered that the Astor had shut its doors, apparently forever. No more climbing the steep steps to the upstairs dining room; no more shish kebab, beef styfado, or belly dancers.… Not to worry, though, helpful concierge Dan Turner at the Crystal City Sheraton suggested the Phoenix, convincing us with the comment, "Its well-liked by members of the Greek community here."
As we drove to this Arlington dining establishment, which bills itself as "The Phoenix, an authentic Greek Country Inn," our palates eagerly anticipated the delights of good Greek cooking, our most-loved ethnic cuisine. Before we even went inside, the spacious free parking lot (a blessed sight for D.C.-area visitors) gave the 2950 Clarendon Boulevard address an immediate practical advantage over many other restaurants we might have chosen. The exterior of the restaurant is white stucco and does indeed look pleasantly "international," especially in contrast to a nearby Sears store and other prosaic urban businesses. Trees festooned with small white lights ornament the petite yard of the restaurant. The use of these festive little white lights, a touch which reminded us of decorations we have seen along the streets of Athens, was also was also carried over into the dining area of the eatery. Greek travel posters and prints decorated the walls, and attractive napkins and tablecloths further enhanced visual appeal.
Established 16 years ago, the restaurant is owned by two brothers who hail from northern Greece. One of the brothers, Aris Fliakes, was on hand the night of our visit. A genteel and delightful host, Aris treated us like friends, rather than customers. His warmth, as well as his dinner selection recommendations, made our dining experience truly memorable.
Because we all love moussaka and baklava, those well-known Greek stand-bys, we already had in mind ordering them as part of our dinner. The suggestion from Aris of chicken breast kebab to satisfy our 6-year-old David helped complete our main course selection. Many beef, lamb, chicken, and seafood possibilities were also listed on the menu. As the moussaka and chicken were prepared, we whetted (and partly sated) our appetites with pre-entree delights.
First a stack of hot disks of tender, yet chewy, pita bread — undoubtedly the best we have ever eaten — was brought to our table. Next we indulged in a wide selection of appetizers including feta cheese; black olives; dolmadakia (vine leaves stuffed with rice and ground meat); spanakotyropitakia (spinach and cheese puffs in phyllo pastry); taramosalata (imported caviar mousse); melitzanosalata (cold eggplant mousse in lemon, oil, and garlic); and mezedez tis oras (an assortment of calf's liver, sausage and meatballs oreganato).
The absolute best of these were the spanakotyropitakia. The phyllo pastry, as light and flaky as manna from heaven, seemed to disappear in our mouths. The caviar mousse was also excellent (pretty coral color, very subtle and smooth in flavor).
A small Greek salad preceded the entrees (after our feast of appetizers). Greek wines, as well as typical American beverage listings, are available at the Phoenix. A personable waitress (from Ethiopia) and a Spanish-speaking busboy ably attended to all our dining needs.
The all-ground-beef (no lamb) moussaka, one of the slightly sweeter versions we have tried, and the kebabed chicken breast chunks arrived soon. The moussaka platter was visually enlivened by a small bouquet of bright green cooked broccoli and a cheerful orange cooked carrot. The browned chicken kebab, interspersed with pieces of cooked green pepper and onion, rested on a bed of white rice. The utilization of top quality ingredients and careful preparation techniques were evident. After such vast amounts of food, dessert seemed an impossibility, yet the quest for the ultimate in baklava beckoned. Gamely we ordered one piece to share around. The delicious sample taught us at the Phoenix serves some of the best baklava (not cloyingly sweet, but toothsome and inviting) our mouths have ever had the pleasure of encompassing. Other dessert possibilities such as rice pudding also were available.
The typical tab for an adult's meal at the Phoenix would fall in the range between twelve and twenty dollars . Concerning directions by automobile, Clarendon parallels Wilson Boulevard. We approached via Wilson, turning south on block at Garfield. For reservations, call 703-841-9494.
Our visit to the Phoenix stirred happy memories of past dining experiences in Greece. Northern Virginia and Athens versions of Greek cooking vary somewhat, of course, but dinner at the Phoenix was a joy. Aris Fliakas, a gentleman of charm and business savvy, knows how to please his guests.
Copyright © 1990–2006 Patricia B. Mitchell.