Greek goes mainstream

I remember my first taste of Greek food. It was at a small Greek café within walking distance of my high school, housed in a strip mall alongside a convenience store, a pizza parlor and a laundromat. Greek salad was a novelty back then. Gyros were an exotic sandwich no one could pronounce. Sometime during the late 1980s, hundreds of miles away, George Katakalidis opened the first Daphne’s in San Diego.

Fifteen years and 31 restaurants later, Katakalidis launched his first foray into Northern California by opening his 32nd restaurant earlier this year in Roseville. Miles away from the mega-mall Galleria at Roseville complex, Daphne’s Greek Cafe has become one of several food tenants in the Renaissance Creek Shopping Center, at the corner where Douglas Boulevard and Sierra College Boulevard meet. For those unfamiliar with that terrain, that intersection is where the shopping mecca of Roseville borders affluent Granite Bay.

From the exterior, Daphne’s benefits from an attractive water fountain, the kind you might see in a central-square plaza. Inside, the restaurant is an immaculate version of a high-end, cheaper-eat restaurant—gourmet on the run, if you will. Like Renaissance Creek’s other food tenants (Chipotle and Pasta Pomodoro), Daphne’s is meant to appeal to those interested in a casual meal made to order and generously portioned with fresh ingredients.

Upon walking in, you notice a marketplace display that showcases Daphne’s labeled cabernet, chardonnay, lager beer, salad dressing and other branded merchandise. Daphne’s newsletters are available at the cash register for anyone who wants to know about the newest store openings, new menu items, new hires or the best restaurants of the quarter.

We were greeted by a perky young woman, seemingly of high-school age, who handed us two laminated menus. As we looked over the offerings, I couldn’t take my eyes off the oversized pictures of the food. Pictures of food throw me off. Why do people bother with representations of food at a restaurant when the real thing is so close at hand? Does the food ever really live up to the air-brushed, glistening portions in the pictures? On the practical side, the pictures might help people decide what they want. More suspiciously, they help the restaurants steer customers toward certain food items.

A minute later, my hungry dining companion pointed to a picture on the menu and said, “That looks good.” It was a picture of Daphne’s combo plate with chicken, which we spotted on the menu for $7.49. So much for dissing the picture concept.

In addition to the combo, we ordered a cup of avgolemono soup, Daphne’s Zestas appetizer, the humus-and-falafel plate and a side of feta fries. We ordered at the counter, but our food was brought out to us in courses—lightning fast!

First came the Zestas. The pita was flash-fried, which gave it a focaccia-like flavor and texture. It was filled with lamb and “fire feta,” a feta with various peppers and spices. (Chicken and falafel also were options.) The triangular bites were delicious but curiously unfiery.

The avgolemono, or egg-lemon soup, did not fare as well. Though rich and lemony as promised, the soup lacked a fresh quality. It was as if the underlying chicken, rice and vegetables had been sitting around too long. Everything else, however, met our expectations of freshness.

The combo plate held generous shavings of tender, spit-roasted lamb seasoned to perfection; and chunks of smoky-tasting chicken breast on a kabob. The rice pilaf and side salad were standard affairs, but with the meats and soft pita, they made for a satisfying meal.

The humus-and-falafel plate stood up as a good vegetarian option. The humus was a thick, lemony version of the traditional garbanzo-bean puree, while the falafels were a textured, spicy rendition. Also flash-fried, the falafel patties were crunchy on the outside (and a touch crunchy on the inside—possibly through the addition of some kind of grain or firmer chickpea). A thick, spreadable tzatziki sauce, with shavings of cucumber and dill, accompanied the plates and tied the ingredients together nicely.

And what of the feta fries? Contrary to hope and expectation, feta fries were merely fries topped with feta. A closer look at the picture would have told all. Though the fries were hot, salty and crispy, the feta proved to be an average accompaniment, far less compelling than ranch or blue-cheese dressings. For a truly different fry experience, we might have done better ordering the “fire fries.”

By the looks of it, Daphne’s has caught on in Roseville—fitting right in with the Starbucks, Chipotle, Pasta Pomodoro crowd. It may be only a matter of time before a Daphne’s shows up near you.