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Brother keeps standards high at Greek diner

December 16, 2018

It is much quieter these days at Friends, Too.

The unmistakable, bellowing voice of owner Nikos Hatzigeorgiou was not echoing through the building on West Jefferson Boulevard when I was there. And nobody there could yell the celebratory Greek “Opa” the way he does when they lit the saganaki.

Hatzigeorgiou and his late wife, Ana, are among my all-time favorite local restaurant owners. Ana succumbed to cancer last year and her fight with the disease is what led to the couple closing their original store, Friends, at Dupont and Lima roads. Nikos, too, was diagnosed with cancer. He was able to eventually return to work, but he is again dealing with health issues. His brother Vasilios said he “is doing the best he can,” but Nikos’ presence at the restaurant, where he was always a mainstay, are rarer these days.

Friends, Too is not the same without Nikos : or Ana : but Vasilios, who everyone there calls Bill, is doing a wonderful job of running it the way Nikos always has. Bill is as charming as his brother, but in a more subdued way. And he seems to love the young customers the best, just like Nikos.

I watched as he approached a little girl, took her hand in his, smiling.

“You are so pretty; you remind me of my daughter,” he said, then lit up when he discovered the young lady’s family was Italian. “Have you ever heard mia fatsa, mia ratsa?”

He went on to explain the traditional saying that means “one face, one race” and references the similarities between the two countries.

There sure was a sense of similarity when it came to the food at Friends, Too because it : especially the homemade Greek offerings : was just as good as it ever was.

The saganaki : flaming Greek cheese : was perfect and was properly lit on fire tableside. The salty, chewy lemon-doused Greek cheese is a must-have at the restaurant.

The moussaka might be a must-have, too, because it was exceptional. The layered eggplant, potato and ground beef casserole with its sweet red sauce and creamy, fluffy bechamel topping that has a layer of melted cheese on top was flawless.

There are two great ways to sample a lot of Greek delicacies, one an appetizer and the other an entrée. So just order both.

The simply named hummus, tzatziki and spicy feta dip was just that, a large plate covered with all three. Just be sure to order extra pita for it right away because there was nowhere close to enough.

The hummus was thicker than I am used to : it held the shape of the ice cream scoop it was distributed from : but its flavor was spot on. The feta dip was much thinner and ran all over the platter, but it was my favorite part. It was very creamy but also packed a punch of heat that was, of course, easily tamed with a little of the cooling cucumber-dotted Greek yogurt tzatziki.

You might struggle to finish the dips, but having extra will come in handy later during your meal.

The Greek combo plate included gyro meat, a chicken and pork souvlaki, one spanokopita, one dolma, one tiropitaki, feta cheese, tzatziki and olives. All of it was enjoyable with the ground beef-stuffed grape leaf (dolma) and cheese-stuffed fried phyllo triangle (tiropitaki) being the best parts.

The Lollipop Lamb Chops appetizer was OK : the three little chops were perfectly cooked to be a little rare and were tender : but they were too lightly seasoned. I wanted more garlic and/or oregano on them to give them more Greek flair.

The only Greek items I did not like were the soups. The lemon-rice and lentil must have been cooking for too long in its warmer as the rice and legumes were mush. Get a house salad instead because Friends, Too makes fabulous ones.

There were some tasty Greek desserts, too.

The baklava, served warm and gooey, had a plethora of firm nuts and its layers of phyllo dough remained a little crispy even though its syrup had melted and oozed all over it.

I loved the galaktoboureko : sweetened custard in phyllo : even more. It looked like a piece of cake, but it was mostly eggy, sweet, creamy custard with just a thin, flaky layer of dough on top. The only other accoutrement was a dusting of powdered sugar, and it needed nothing else. It really reminded me of a souffle.

I also found a couple of wonderful not-so-traditional dishes.

The Roast Beef Melt was flagged with a logo as a specialty, which I found odd given that most of those were Greek dishes. But after my first bite, I knew it was deserving.

Stringy, super-tender, slow-cooked, juicy beef roast was served between slices of buttery grilled rye or sourdough bread : I chose the latter : with cheddar-jack cheese. It came with a little cup of flavorful, herb-infused braising liquid from the roast for dunking, so it might have been a little Greek after all.

Breakfast is always available at Friends, Too, and the selections are tempting because of their Greek infusion. Given he was on my mind so much during my visits, I had to try one with the founder’s name : Nikos’ Skillet.

Potatoes mixed with gyro meat, spicy Hungarian peppers and tomatoes arrived on a sizzling fajita plate topped with finely shredded feta cheese and two eggs. It was a spicy affair as the finely diced, light-green peppers were abundant, but my runny egg yolk helped tame it as did a little of my leftover tzatziki. There was a lot of meat, too, but it could have used more tomatoes.

The pancakes that came with it had a unique flavor from maybe malt or just vanilla, which gave them a wonderful aroma. I would have devoured every crumb had the bottom flapjack not been half raw. But I will give them another chance because of that yummy flavor.

And I will keep giving Friends, Too plenty of chances. Even though Ana’s personal service that really made you feel like a part of her family and Nikos’ boisterous presence were missing, it still is very deserving of a resounding, “Opa!”

Restaurant: Friends, Too

Address: 3720 W. Jefferson Blvd.

Phone: 755-0894

Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Greek

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Lamb chops (7.99), moussaka (14.49), Roast Beef Melt (8.99), desserts (3.29)

Rating breakdown: Food: ★★1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: ★ (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.