BY JAMES LEACHVoula’s Greek Sweets
439 Monroe Ave.
Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Since the closing of The Olive Tree, Rochester has had to wait a long time for another Greek restaurant. That’s not to say that we don’t have excellent restaurants that are Greek-ish — broadly Mediterranean places that offer Greek food alongside other dishes that are more Middle Eastern in origin, like falafel or tabouli or pita bread, for that matter. Sure, you can find spanakopita and pastitsio on other menus. Dolmades are certainly not unusual. And it’s difficult to walk into almost any restaurant, Greek or not, that doesn’t offer some form of hummus. But fairly small is the number of places where you can find tyropita (Greek cheese baked inside layers of handmade phyllo) or horiatiki (a salad of fresh tomatoes, red and green peppers, cucumbers, and red onions with feta and olives that puts all other Greek salads to shame) or papoutsaki (roasted, stuffed eggplant topped with creamy bechamel sauce). And there’s only one Greek restaurant that is also a haven for Rochester vegetarians with a sweet tooth: Voula’s Greek Sweets on Monroe Avenue.
Painted in the colors of a Mykonos postcard — robin’s egg blue and bright white — and furnished with battered and well-loved kitchen tables and cane-seated chairs, the dining room at Voula’s most resembles a street café that you might find anywhere in Southern Europe. The only things really missing are the soccer posters, a Cinzano umbrella, and a group of old men and women who more or less live at the tables. It’s instantly comfortable and convivial, and it’s not unusual for the restaurant’s owner and namesake to be engaged in shouted, cheery conversation with customers from across the restaurant while elderly grandmothers carefully scrutinize the contents of the display cases and offer advice. Voula’s thrives as a place for people to meet, to talk, and — almost as an afterthought — to eat.
Walk into what Voula Katsetos-Stratton describes as her taverna, and the first thing you will see is a huge pastry case, stacked top to bottom with baklava, bird’s nests, and at least a dozen more variations on the theme of phyllo, nuts, and syrup that most of us associate with Greek pastry. Rush to these staples, though, and you will miss out on chocolatina (rich chocolate layer cake enrobed in chocolate ganache) or kariokes (a chocolate fudge brownie so dense and rich that one diminutive square will satisfy even the most voracious chocoholic for a week).
You might also pass by gigantic slices of revani ($3.25), a farina-based cake soaked in a syrup enriched with orange zest. Farina is a bit heavier than all-purpose flour, and much heavier than cake flour, resulting in a cake with a large, toothsome crumb that is substantial enough to be saturated with syrup without falling apart. Topped with crisscrossed slivers of candied orange peel (a treat in themselves), this is the perfect coffee cake. It practically implores you to linger over it with a sly finger snaking out occasionally to dab citrus-scented crumbs from the plate.
At Voula’s it’s almost too easy to become ensnared by sweets, causing you to miss out on the excellent savories on offer here. Every morning, Katsetos-Stratton and her baking mentor, Effie Marou, fill a gigantic wicker basket near the center of the dining room with lagana, a Lenten bread that falls somewhere between pita and focaccia on the flatbread scale. Brushed with olive oil and dusted with either salt and pepper or sesame seeds, Voula’s lagana is a sensational platform for her exceptional hummus, melitzanosalata (eggplant, red pepper, onion, and garlic spread) or Greek-yogurt-based tzatziki ($5 each).
On my first visit to Voula’s I sat near a very old woman and her daughter, both of whom were speaking rapid-fire Greek. I wasn’t catching much of the conversation, but I was completely tuned in to the parade of stunning food brought to their table: a basket full of slices of warm lagana, a plate heaped with Greek feta and dolmades, a lettuce-less salad composed of vegetables so vividly colored that they screamed “eat me” from across the room, and a bowl of hummus. I coveted the meal so much that I tried to replicate it on a subsequent visit, ordering the horiatiki salad with both a scoop of hummus and a bit of feta.
Voula’s hummus is spicy and garlicky, almost green with the parsley she chops into it, and good enough to eat with a spoon if you run out of lagana. Her tzatziki, though, is the star of the show. Using Greek yogurt in place of regular yogurt creates a spread akin to crème fraiche that highlights the cucumbers, dill, and garlic and perhaps even artichokes that she stirs into the mix. The cream cheese spread you put on your bagel in the morning dreams about being this good.
Voula’s horiatiki ($7.50) is an excellent example of her skill as a cook. The salad, not much more than uber-fresh tomatoes, sliced cucumber, red and green bell pepper, red onion, and olives lightly dressed with an oregano vinaigrette is an exercise in minimalism. Katsetos-Stratton has stripped her recipes down to their essential elements, leaving behind straightforward, pure flavors that pack a powerful punch.
The same skill comes through in her pastitsio ($6.50), a Greek cousin of lasagna that substitutes fusilli for flat pasta sheets and creamy bechamel sauce for the ricotta. Often, pastitsio comes out of the kitchen looking messy, the layers running together, the cuts rough, and the dish so wet that it collapses on the plate. Voula’s version (each serving is about 6” on a side) is admirably firm. The mixture of subtly spiced soy products she uses in place of ground beef is moist without being watery, the bechamel a creamy but not runny layer atop the dish, the pasta cooked just so — a perfect lunch for two, allowing you to save room for iced coffee and a plate of almond-butter cookies coated in powdered sugar as you linger into the afternoon.