BY PETE TITTL
I'm not quite sure what to make of Athena's Greek Cafe and Bakery, a new Rosedale restaurant specializing in an ethnic food that is under-represented in Bakersfield (save for Goose Loonies).
On the plus side, over a couple visits, we sampled a traditional Greek gyro ($9.99) made with marinated pork. We ordered this because the schwarma spit was hacked down to a stump, which meant the lunch crowd must like what they do with meats there. My companions raved over the freshness of the whole-wheat pita, the exceptionally fresh tzatziki sauce, the fresh tomatoes and onions, the succulent, flavorful meat, perfectly spiced. So excited were they that my regular companion declared it the best gyro she had ever sampled.
As a professional restaurant critic, I'm paid to have an outstanding food memory, and I reminded her of the dazzling gyro we had shared in 2004 on a culinary tour of Greenwich Village in New York City. She looked at me like I was a freak. Perhaps she is right.
In any case, what we sampled here that day in Bakersfield was right up there with the other one, perhaps slipping to second place because this one used pork and the Big Apple version had lamb.
Lamb in a well-made gyro is heaven. Could be my personal preference.
So it stands to reason that we should be ready to rave about this small place (five indoor metal tables with a patio outside) in what used to be a yogurt shop.
Not quite. A couple of other features still need work.
Let's talk service. At a dinner visit, our waitress, part of a small crew of about five people, was pleasant enough but knew nothing about the menu and was unable to answer the simplest questions.
My companion ordered the "village salad" ($8.99), which the menu said was made with "fresh tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, sweet peppers, Greek peppers, feta and Kalamata olives topped with Greek olive oil."
Note the omission of lettuce. Romaine would be included, we just assumed (don't bother telling me what that means -- I have a fresh reminder). Apparently this is a salad for a village that does not like lettuce.
Fine. A reading comprehension problem. My fault.
But there was no feta cheese. We asked about that. She said, "No, that salad doesn't have feta cheese." I was tempted to whip out my to-go menu and prove her wrong on the spot. But I dropped it. The tomatoes on this plate were a bit mushy and someone had thrown the pulp of the pepper into the mix, as if anyone should eat that.
There's more -- a real timing problem. The sandwich was served 10 minutes before the pork chop. That just inspires anyone else at the table to get their fork and help pick it apart, thereby depriving its owner of the proper nutrition.
(Apparently some of us need to go back to the anti-lettuce village to learn table manners.)
And then getting the check after requesting it at the end of our meal was sheer torture. Twenty minutes later, still no tab, to the point that one of the two chefs in the exhibition kitchen noted my displeasure and came by to ask if we needed anything. I said, "Just the check." Usually that brings it quickly. Instead another eight minutes to get the damage. Yikes.
But back to the food: My dinner that night was mixed. I ordered the Greek-style pork chops ($11.99). Since there was an "s" at the end of the word chops, I expected two. Another reading comprehension issue. I got one, it was full of gristle, surrounded by fat and studded with bones. Lots of work for a few ounces of protein. On the plus side, the rice pilaf was simple but worth recommending and the salad it came with had fresh Romaine lettuce (notify the village!) and a simple olive oil vinaigrette.
Another good choice we can recommend are the patates lemonates, baked Greek potato chunks seasoned with black pepper and lemon. Wow, those are addicting. We also had to order a piece of the three-layer carrot cake in the bakery cabinet, because it looked so tall and inviting it was practically waving to us at our table. The cake was studded with raisins, shredded coconut, walnuts -- definitely an exceptional must-order.
So, as you can see, things aren't always so cut and dried in the restaurant reviewing business. Will Athena, with its marvelously diverse menu that includes Greek-style meatballs, spinach and feta-filled pastries as well as pork, beef and veggie skewers, deliver on the promise it suggests in its best moments? We shall see. In the meantime, bring your patience.