If you happen to be dining at Alexander’s on a slow night, or toward the end of the evening when things start winding down, chances are very good that owner/chef Nik Badaway will venture out of the kitchen and pay your table a visit. Compliment him on the meal, and he’ll proudly tell you that he cooks everything from scratch. No doubt he’ll add that his kitchen doesn’t even have a freezer.
Get the affable chef talking, and he may tell you that he was born in Athens, an assertion that’s backed up by his Old World accent. He’ll go on to say that he’s been cooking “all my life” – which translates to 30-plus years professionally, 15 of them as executive chef at the popular Theo’s Taverna in Pinehurst. Badaway opened Alexander’s (which, he’ll be happy to inform you, is named for a son who is currently in school in Greece) a little over a year ago in Garner.
While word has been slow to spread beyond the town’s borders, locals have found it in sufficient numbers that those slow nights are becoming less frequent. I hadn’t heard of the place myself until recently, when I got an email from a fan proclaiming Alexander’s “the best restaurant in all of Garner.”
Now that I’ve eaten there a couple of times, I can heartily second that assessment. Granted, given the paucity of good restaurants in Garner, that’s not saying much. So let me go a step further, and say that this little strip mall gem is worth seeking out even if you don’t live in Garner.
I’d gladly make the drive from Cary for the nightly specials alone, which are written on a chalkboard just outside the entrance. If the list happens to include (as it did recently) the chef’s soul-satisfying leek and potato soup and his seafood kebabs (that night, a bountiful haul of halibut, sea bass, grouper and salmon), I might not even bother to open the menu.
Not that the menu suffers from a lack of tempting options. The Greek antipasto sampler serves up a shareable feast of stuffed grape leaves, spanakopita, keftides (Greek meatballs), gyros, hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, calamari (fried, notwithstanding the menu description of “grilled”) and a couple of slabs of feta. Arriving on a large platter garnished with kalamata olives, a dollop of tzatziki and plenty of warm pita wedges, it’s a steal at $16.95.
If you’re looking to start with something a little lighter, then the signature Alexander shrimp – sautéed in olive oil with garlic, lemon, herbs, tomatoes and spinach – should satisfy. Most of the items on the antipasto platter are available a la carte, too. If I had to limit myself to just one, I’d go with the crisp, lightly breaded calamari.
The entree offering doesn’t attempt to cover the entire traditional Greek repertoire, but hits a few high spots from moussaka to lamb souvlaki. Grilled rack of lamb, served with the lemony roasted potatoes and big chunks of fresh vegetables that are hallmarks of the cuisine, is a worthy option. And a bargain, too, at $18.95 for four fat chops that practically beg you to pick them up and gnaw on the bones.
As proud as he is of his native cuisine, Badaway doesn’t limit himself to the Greek classics. He bills his offering as “Mediterranean cuisine,” and backs it up by freely venturing across borders for the likes of paella, lemon risotto and Tuscan chicken (served over penne in a creamy tomato sauce with artichokes, mushrooms and spinach).
In any event, should you yield to the temptation to conclude your meal with Badaway’s house-made baklava (“I make it the traditional way, with walnuts”), be advised that the chef is as generous with sweets as he is with savories. Not that you’ll have any trouble finishing dessert, especially since in all likelihood someone at the table will volunteer to help you out.
That’s true even if the phyllo pastry has lost some of its crispness to an overly zealous soaking in sugar syrup, as happens on occasion. Such miscues on the part of the kitchen are invariably minor, though, and seldom amount to anything more serious than, say, a slightly overcooked bechamel on the moussaka.
Mediterranean landscapes and blue vinyl tablecloths set a casual mood with a traditional Greek flavor in Alexander’s two modestly inviting dining rooms. The wait staff are unfailingly welcoming and eager to please. Service is efficient, too – sometimes to a fault, resulting in entrees arriving midway through the appetizer course.
Occasionally, Badaway’s wife, Daisy, helps out in the dining room. You’ll know her by her dark wavy hair and her outgoing personality. When she informs you that her husband baked the complimentary bread she just set down on the table, there’s no doubt that she is his number one fan.
But clearly, judging by Alexander’s increasingly well-filled dining rooms, she’s not his only one.