Tonight, in the dining room at Ulysses Voyage Greek restaurant in Los Angeles, a waiter will come out of the kitchen holding a small pan. In that pan will be a slab of fried white cheese, which the waiter will douse with alcohol—in this case, ouzo—and quickly set on fire.
“Opa!” he’ll shout.
“Opa!” customers around him will shout back, like freshmen at a pep rally.
Just as quickly, the waiter will squeeze a wedge of lemon over the flaming cheese and deliver the dish, all warm and crusty and melting, to the table.
This scene, lasting all of maybe eight seconds, will play out again and again at Ulysses and further west at Taverna Tony in Malibu, California. It’ll happen at Jim and Jennie’s Greek Village in Omaha, Nebraska, at Mama’s Greek Cuisine in Tarpon Springs, Florida, and at Christos in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
It’s hard to find a Greek restaurant in the United States that doesn’t serve this dish called flaming saganaki. But there is at least one place in Chicago where you won’t hear the “Opa!” cry. Ironically enough, it’s where saganaki was said to have been invented: The Parthenon.
The restaurant at 314 South Halsted Street, one of the oldest in Greektown, closed abruptly and unceremoniously on Monday after 48 years in business and who knows how many pans of saganaki.
“We’re all sad, but it is what it is,” says proprietor Yanna Liakouras, whose father, Chris Liakouras, opened the restaurant with his brother Bill in 1968. Talking by phone Thursday, she was mum on the reasons for closing. Those details are likely to emerge over time.
But there is little doubt as to the Parthenon's legacy: this nightly parade of flaming cheese in restaurants from Tacoma to Tallahassee and beyond.
"We feel proud that we’ve contributed something to the culinary community. We’re proud we’ve been in business for 48 years and we’re proud that other restaurants picked it up,” Yanna Liakouras says.
She laughs as she recalls a 1985 visit to the Greek island of Santorini. From the street, she saw a pan being set aflame in a restaurant. “I was so surprised, so I walked in and asked for the owner,” she says. “I said, ‘Which restaurant in Chicago did you work at?' He said, 'The Parthenon.’”
To be clear, saganaki in Greek cuisine refers to any number of foods—cheese, shrimp, mussels—cooked in a small pan called a sagani. Claims of never-before-seen-until-now dishes can be hard to verify. Every recipe, it can be argued, is based on a previous one. So what Chris Liakouras took credit for from the beginning was not cheese saganaki but rather the theatrics around it. The flambéing, the “Opa!” flourish—that was his.
“I invented saganaki at this table in 1968,” he told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1979. “I was sitting here with three lady friends. We were talking about different things we could do. When a cheese dish was mentioned, one of the ladies said, ‘Why don’t you try flaming it?’”
In the same article, competing restaurateur Petros Kogiones of the now-gone Diana’s Opaa tells a different story: that the cheese was first lit in 1964 up the street at Diana’s, his family’s restaurant and precursor to his own place.
Over the years, Yanna Liakouras has heard of other restaurants claiming ownership of the dish, but never to the point of a full-fledged food fight. Most have come to accept The Parthenon as the birthplace.
“It definitely wasn’t Santorini. We’d love to take credit for it, but we can’t. It makes sense for it to be the Parthenon,” says George Exarhoulias, general manager of his uncle’s 28-year-old restaurant at 800 West Adams Street, where, on any given night, between 50 and 100 orders of saganaki go out to diners.
In developing his signature dish, Chris Liakouras experimented with different types of alcohol until settling on brandy, his daughter says. It adds a tiny bit of flavor and, more importantly, evaporates quickly. Good saganaki should not swim in liquid.
The cheese, of course, is crucial. The Parthenon always used kasseri, a Greek sheep’s milk cheese that melts like a dream. It's dipped in flour and egg wash and fried.
Other restaurants often use kefalotyri, which is firmer and saltier.
“It holds its shape better and doesn’t melt as easily,” says Yanna Liakouras. In other words, not the best choice for flaming saganaki.
These are not fighting words, mind you. There are no secrets; never were. You can watch Chris Liakouras make saganaki on YouTube. The recipe is in the 2008 book, The Parthenon Cookbook: Great Mediterranean Recipes from the Heart of Chicago’s Greektown, for anyone’s use.
Should you try and make saganaki at home, Liakouras cautions that the oil in the pan should be drained off completely before lighting the cheese, otherwise you risk smoking out your kitchen or, worse, setting it on fire.
Or you could just do as others will do tonight, tomorrow, and next week, in Greek restaurants across Chicago (save for one), California, Florida, even Greece. Order the flaming saganaki, sit back, and enjoy the show.