Open for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested on weekends.
Prices: Most lunch entrees $4.50 to $9. Dinner appetizers $2 to $8, main dishes $8.50 to $15. Full dinner with house wine, tax and tip about $19 to $27 a person.
One day it's a hardly noticed field alongside a suburban thoroughfare. Next day the surveyors are peeking and pacing. And the next, or so it seems, the earth begins to push up still another low-slung office building, often just as forgettable as the empty lot that preceded it. How many of these glass and concrete look-alikes ring the Beltway? And how many of them have restaurants? More than you'd expect from the outside. Signs seldom violate the sterility of these buildings, so the game of find-the-restaurant can require nerves of steel and a full tank of gas. Are the restaurants as forgettable as their surroundings? Mainly yes, but not always. Athena Plaza, for example, serves enough solidly good Greek dishes to place it far above run-of-the-mill office-building eateries. It won't make anyone's Top 10 list, or provide a memorable dining experience, but it's clearly worth a try if you're in the neighborhood.
If the Athena Plaza stands apart from all the other restaurant clones, so does the building that houses it. One Central Plaza, across from White Flint, is one of the spiffiest office complexes along Rockville Pike. The restaurant, windowless and low-ceilinged, is a little like a ground-floor catacomb, but it's a warm, cozy, rather elegant catacomb, with soft lighting, white linens and comfortable high-backed chairs. The menu is limited, but most of what's offered is brought off well, and a few things are smashing.
Take gyros. Have you thought about giving up on gyros? Do the gray, greasy shavings served in all those shopping-center delis send you to the medicine cabinet for relief? Have hope. A veritable Rolls Royce of gyros is available here. Subtle flavoring rather than salt predominates, and meat rather than fat. (Test: squeeze a piece and note the absence of oily ooze.) At least as classy is the souvlaki, arguably the best around: perfectly trimmed cubes of beef, nicely marinated and grilled, pink and juicy inside. Note that the gyros and souvlaki are available only at lunch -- too bad. (Soudsoukakia, a spiced ground beef, is the third pita-based sandwich, but it's painfully overdosed with salt and cumin.)
One of the best parts of dinner at Athena Plaza is dipping into the appetizers -- literally. There's a first-class taramosalata spread, a velvety puff that's practically worth a visit in itself. The fish roe is commendably unfishy, and it's sparked by, but not submerged in, fresh garlic. (The portion, by the way, easily serves two, even leaving a dab to take home for the next morning's toast.) Fresh minced garlic also graces the tzatziki, an extraordinary dip whose base seems too silky to be commercial yogurt, and in which garlic and cucumber play off beautifully against one another.
Even the best of dips can't be savored fully without a proper dipper, and here the Athena Plaza comes through beautifully -- not with cellophaned crackers and not with cheap brown-and-serve rolls. No, this is the genuine article. Slather some taramosalata or tzatziki on a fat, thick-crusted slab, wash it down with some retsina, and you may find yourself forgetting all about entrees.
But there are entrees worth remembering. Dolmades, available at lunch or dinner, are exemplary, with a large proportion of ground beef in the grape-leaf filling, and with a properly lemony avgolemono sauce. Moussaka, too, is a good rendition. The bechamel custard has the requisite airiness, and, with restraint on the tomato, cumin and nutmeg, the flavors of meat and eggplant come through as they should.
Shish kebab, with immense, succulent chunks of lamb grilled just to pinkness within, could be a winner. Trouble is, it's degraded by a superfluous, thickened brown sauce and what look like canned mushroom slices -- odd, that they would hide wonderful meat under that ordinary glop.
The veal is high quality, and the best test of that is the simpler of the two veal dishes, veal francaise, in which the pale, tender, unpounded medallions hold their own in just an egg batter with a butter and lemon sauce. The same good sauce appears on the big, sweet scampi.
Judging from our experience with the stuffed flounder, however, scampi and scallops are probably about as far as you should venture in the seafood department. The waiter assured us that the flounder was fresh. Technically, he may have been right: the fish may not have been frozen, and -- at some point in the past -- it must have been fresh. But if one can judge from the faintly cod-liver-oil flavor and aroma, it hadn't been fresh recently. The crab stuffing, a near puree whose main flavor seemed to be mayonnaise, didn't help.
Dinner salads are hearts of head lettuce, white as the driven snow, with crumbled feta cheese and either an overvinegared house dressing or what tastes like commercial dressings.
We submitted the chocolate mousse to several mousse mavens for appraisal, and all agreed it was heavily oversweetened. There's also an undistinguished creme caramel and a good if undernutted baklava.
A thumbnail appraisal: salads and desserts should be improved, the veil of gravy should be lifted from the otherwise superlative shish kebab, and the fish should be either really fresh or discontinued. On the other hand, the good bread is to be cherished, the Greek dishes are exemplary for the most part, and the gyros and souvlaki are rare jewels. So, if you want a change from eating at White Flint and you have the courage to cross Rockville Pike (they say physical danger quickens the appetite), you ought to keep Athena Plaza in mind.