By MARK NIXON
We have several fine restaurants in Greater Lansing whose kitchen artistry deserves our appreciation. What of the rest? Doomed to exist among the rabble of restaurant losers?
Well, yes and no. There are some really crummy restaurants around here, with no apparent path to redemption.
Yet, there are places in town that daily redeem themselves with solidly built menus that eschew cutting edge sizzle.
I give you Athena’s on Lansing’s south side. It’s a friendly place, tidy and unpretentious, usually busy and boasting a globe-spanning menu.
On our first visit, I knew beforehand I was going for comfort food. The meatloaf special with mashed potatoes, gravy and steamed vegetables and a roll ($7.95) fit the bill. The portions were generous and, while this didn’t knock my socks off, it’s just what I wanted.
Judy and I shared tastes of her gyro plate ($11.25). I thought the gyro meat — a mix of seasoned lamb and beef — was a bit on the tough side. But the fresh pita and the tzatzki sauce more than redeemed the entire dish.
Our meals came with a choice of a side.
We asked for the lemon rice soup. I was disappointed. I’m used to avgolemono with the rice still intact, and bits of chicken and a pronounced lemon “pop” to finish it off. The rice in this soup was mushy from being overcooked.
On our second visit I went straight to the Coney Island ($3.75). The coney sauce had the requisite cumin crackle, and the hot dog the proper snap when I bit into it. This coney is in the Detroit style, meaning the sauce is soupier than the drier Flintstyle coney. I prefer the Flint coney (Sparty’s in Frandor has the best locally) but Athena’s version is as good as any Detroit coney I’ve tasted.
Judy’s fish and chips ($10.95) were spot on; crisp and properly fried on the outside, still tender and moist within.
My favorite taste on this visit was the cheese and tortilla soup. It’s what we call at our house “refrigerator soup” — a little of everything. Given the chance, I would steal this Athena’s recipe.
Our final meals consisted of a chicken dinner with rice pilaf ($10.75) and spinach pie ($6.99). The chicken was adequate, akin to what you could get out of a supermarket deli. The rice pilaf was fluffy and sturdy without being overcooked, a la the lemon rice soup.
Now to the spinach pie, where we agreed to disagree. I love a good spanakopita, the Greek word for this dish. I’ve had some amazing tastes of this dish in Detroit’s Greektown.
Athena’s version was hit and miss. The phyllo pastry was light and flaky. A hit. The interior was a wad of spinach that was essentially tasteless.
That’s my take. Judy begged to differ.
Either my taste buds are shot, or hers are akin to a dog’s keen sense of smell. (And I am now officially in the doghouse for that analogy).
The servers are either genuinely happy or are outstanding actors. They are funny, efficient, smiling and full of blarney. Note to servers: That last part is a compliment. I’m part Irish, don’t you know?SHE ATE
By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE
On our first visit to Athenas, complete with one bundled-up newborn who snoozed in his car seat the entire time, we were hungry for breakfast. When I don’t have particularly strong feelings over what I want to eat, I frequently choose something that is denoted as being a house special or a favorite item. With this in mind, I chose the House Hash with my eggs sunny side up. The menu claimed that the hash is served with homemade hash brown and topped with grilled onions, tomatoes, green peppers, mushrooms, spinach and feta cheese.
I don’t know how to soften this blow, and I don’t think the blow deserves a feathery landing. This hash was one of the worst meals I have ever paid for.
The hash browns were so completely overcooked that they were essentially impossible to eat. Ever chipped a tooth on a potato? I didn’t want to risk it.
The problem with previously frozen spinach is that it is waterlogged, and unless you thaw it and squeeze the water out of it, you’ll have the sensation of gnawing on a wet sponge. I tired of that feeling quickly and ate the eggs, after covering them in the salt and pepper that had apparently been missing from the kitchen. After I made quick work of those I concentrated on my coffee, which was excellent. I’m not saying that with tongue in cheek, the coffee was exceptional.
Mr. She Ate ordered one of his favorites, a Monte Cristo sandwich. What is supposed to be a battered and fried ham and cheese sandwich had been reimagined as simply a ham and cheese sandwich made on French toast. Whether the reinterpretation of the Monte Cristo we are familiar with was intentional or not, we will never know, because he is not interested in ordering it again. His side of bacon was, in a word, cold.
After the first visit and before the next one, I crowd-sourced my experience. I asked a limited group of people if they had been to Athena’s, if they had enjoyed it, and what we should try next time. It gives me little joy to lambast local businesses, and if there’s something great on the menu that I’ve missed, I always want to know about it. I was told to go there for lunch, not breakfast, and to eat the Coney dogs, since the sauce was to die for. With that in mind we again packed up Baby She Ate and headed in for lunch.
After hemming and hawing over gyros and spinach pies, I chose the Chicken Kabob on Pita. What arrived at the table was a generous serving of char-grilled chicken breast, skewed with peppers and onions on top of a piece of pita bread. Mr.
She Ate took a bite of chicken before I did and looked at me wide-eyed, and his reaction paired with the actual appearance of the chicken let me know that I was in for something good. This chicken was juicy, and flavorful, and had texture to it because it was cooked on a grill. The vegetables still had a snap to them, and I proceeded to slather the pita bread with the accompanying tzatziki and rip off pieces to scoop up pieces of chicken and green pepper. If you’ve never understood how people can get excited about a grilled chicken breast, which I happen to love, this one will make a believer out of you.
Because we know how to take direction, Mr. She Ate ordered a Coney dog combo with fries. The dogs were appropriately topped with only chili sauce, mustard and chopped onion, and while they lacked the snap that makes people flock to Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit, they were the best you can find in Lansing. The sauce was mildly spicy and thick, which we appreciate, because is there anything worse than a hot dog bun becoming soaked through and disintegrating into your hand right when you have to go back to work?
3109 S. Cedar St. Lansing Monday - Saturday 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sunday 8 a.m. - 3 p.m.
(517) 394-0072 athenasdiner.com