Last week, I talked about a dish that was, at least in spirit, as American as they come. This week, I tried one that was distinctly Chicagoan. No, I'm not talking Chicago hot dogs, deep dish pizza, or Italian beefs. I'm talking saganaki, that flaming cheese dish flambéed table side and accompanied by cries of "Opa!" at nearly every Greek restaurant in the country. Legend has it that flaming saganaki was invented in 1968 at The Parthenon restaurant in Chicago's Greektown. Their website states that "before saganaki was flambéed here, it was merely fried cheese." I'm offended! But the fried siren call is strong, and injustice to non-burning-in-front-of-you fried dishes still withstanding, I couldn't resist succumbing to saganaki's charms.
But first I had to figure out just what makes saganaki "fried." You see, the word is a bit of a catch all on restaurant menus, and it's hard to ever know what you're getting yourself into. Being put under a broiler until the oil separates from the cheese could make saganaki delicious, but it wouldn't exactly qualify as "fried" for the purpose of this column. Luckily, The Parthenon Cookbook gives the restaurant's recipe (as well as a warning not to flambé at home—challenge accepted): dip the cheese slab in an egg wash, dredge it in flour, and fry it in a quarter inch of oil for a minute on each side. Good enough for me.
The saganaki ($5.95) at The Parthenon is made with kasseri, a mild cheese that tastes a lot like string cheese. It is flambéed with brandy and the waiter douses the flames by squeezing lemon juice over it. Both the liquor and lemon juice definitely contribute to the flavor, but to me, it smelled and tasted like one of the best white bread cheese toasties I've ever had. (I also say "Pop.") The dish is served with a hard sesame seed crusted loaf of bread, which sort of obscured the saganaki's subtle taste. Next time, I'll order some grilled pita to dip in it instead.
As a side note, whether you're in a group or dining alone, the waiter is still going to yell "Opa!" at you before giving you your fried cheese. Be prepared. I wasn't, and it was awkward for both of us. Bring friends.
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