The Gregorian Calendar was first ordained by the Catholic Church in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. Its purpose was to retool the leap year arrangements of the previously used Julian Calendar in order to harmonize the celestial seasons. The Julian, which Julius Caesar decreed over the Roman Calendar in 46 B.C., had a slightly longer year than the Gregorian eventually would, and gained one day approximately every 134 years. Over the course of the 1,628 years before the Julian-to-Gregorian switch, the 10 extra days that had occurred had thrown the computed date of Easter out of phase with the moon.
A view from above: Glancing down from the spiral staircase reveals Opus’ intimate dining and stage area.
Science is typically not applied to religion, but the Vatican deemed it a necessary change. But not all followers of the faith were cool with it. That’s why there are two Easters noted on modern calendars. The Eastern Orthodox bunch chose to remain traditional and continue to observe the Julian Calendar. And as time has gone by, the Eastern Easter continues to drift farther away from the western giant bunny day. This year, Orthodox Easter will be celebrated on Sunday, April 27, nearly a month after its March 23 western counterpart.
The majority of Orthodoxy adherents reside on the coastline of the Mediterranean sea that runs from Greece northward. And since their day is due, more people might be in the mood for some Mediterranean cuisine—and Syracuse, believe it or not, has something to offer. Most people know King David’s and Acropolis on Marshall Street as the prime facilitators of that type of fare, but there’s more.
In what used to be the old Daniel Jack’s in Armory Square, Opus, 218 Walton St., recently opened under new management with a completely different style and theme. The cuisine focuses on all things European, combining a bit of that Mediterranean swing with a sophisticated jazzy vibe.
“We just wanted to do something different,” says Don Dixie, who with wife Kristina, are the proprietors of Opus. “We changed everything we possibly could, from the colors, to the look and size of the bar, to the type of food that’s served. It’s an entirely different atmosphere than it used to be in here.”
The inside has been completely redesigned to utilize its svelte and lofty two-story dining and lounge space. A bartender standing behind a much narrower bar than what Daniel Jack’s had greets you upon entrance, giving the slender area more imbibing and standing space. As you twirl down the spiral staircase to the dining area on the first floor, you’ll notice the dim lighting reflecting off the misty red brick walls; it provides an ambience of a paint-the-town passion not found in many other local restaurants.
While the storied building and Armory location provided a fortuitous opportunity for Dixie, he mentions that the most consequential piece of the puzzle that got the restaurant off to an auspicious start was the man behind the menu: head chef Nicolas Dessein. “We really got lucky with Nick,” says Dixie. “We put an ad in the paper, he came in and cooked for us and we knew we had found that special something that was going to set us apart from other restaurants.”
What distinguishes Dessein’s menu from many other local purveyors of fine food is where he learned his cooking chops. “I studied in southern France with an old, traditional French chef,” says Dessein. “He taught me how things are supposed to be cooked, which is much different from how many people cook today. The newer generation of chefs put too many ingredients into the food that don’t need to be there, and they end up contradicting the true taste out of each other.” Simple and to the point, Dessein allows, “I make stuff that most people could make at home.”
Although he studied in France, he encompasses the entire area around the Mediterranean for his heritage-style culinary inspiration. Olives, basil and tomatoes are the prime ingredients that saturate the main entree in many of his creations. The lamb curry ($24) is slowly simmered in a tomato and vegetable curry sauce with basmati saffron rice. For the Mediterranean sea scallops ($25), he pan-sears them before coating with lemon, thyme, prosciutto and goat cheese risotto to provide a rare taste treat in these parts.
Dessein knows he uses many ingredients that are foreign to many patrons, but he has already come up with a viable solution. “I like to get the waiters involved to know who they’re dealing with so I can adjust the menu to them and have the waiter make the perfect recommendation to them,” he says. “The way people approach food and their sense of taste is all about the way they grew up. So I tell the waiters, without going into their life history, to try and find out a little bit about people unsure of what to order, and I can usually make the right connection.”
But for those unwilling to venture a little off the eaten path, there are a few Mediterranean delights that will sail smoothly on the savory side. The spicy eggplant and tomato farfale ($17) is a big hit with the veggie loving crowd, as it features the tri-colored bow-tied pasta tossed with eggplant, tomato, basil and Parmesan. For carnivores, the sirloin burger ($14) is prepared with USDA choice tenderloin chopped to order and topped with Gouda cheese, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions and served with bistro fries.
Specialty salads, such as the beef curry and the spicy shrimp, range in price from $5 to $10. Eight unique appetizers are also available; the savory basil and tomato tart ($7) is comprised of marinated tomatoes and peppers layered with basil and mozzarella, and the pizza flambee ($7) features fried bacon, diced tomato, cream cheese ricotta and herbs.
Dessein says he’ll always come out to the tables to make sure people are not just “saying it” that they thought the food was good. “I tell them to criticize me,” he exclaims. “It’s almost impossible to make a perfect menu, but the more honest people are, the more I’ll be able to get it as close as I can to that.”
Dixie made one observation that, to him, goes beyond words. “Opus means creative work,” he says. “And Nick fits right in because he’s so creative in the kitchen.”
But Dessein is a little more humble about his menu. “We just have a lot of things that have been missing in Syracuse,” says the chef. “It’s really more of an unseen tradition than invention.”
Opus is open Mondays through Wednesdays, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 to 11 p.m. The lounge area is open during regular hours Mondays through Wednesdays, but is open until 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays with appetizers served until 1 a.m. For information, call 701-1351.
Your Big Fast Greek Deli
Traveling from Armory to Hanover Square, if you’re more in a lunch rush but still want to think a little Greek, stop by Niko’s Pasta, Pizza and Deli, 135 E. Water St. In business for 18 years, the cafeteria-style food emporium is a favorite with the downtown business crowd, and also those that frequent Hanover’s taverns in the happy hour after work.
While they offer everything from pizza to deli sandwiches, there is some Mediterranean fare for those with a more Orthodox taste. “We have gyros, pasticcio, which is a Greek pasta dish, and also plain and chicken Greek salads,” says Billy Ocasio, head chef at Niko’s.
Ocasio, who has been at Niko’s for 15 years, says, “We probably have the biggest salads in town and we’ll see the same people every day coming in for them.” With 10 salads on the menu, including Caesars and a Julienne, Ocasio says one that is picking up steam is the Yum Yum ($6.95), which contains grilled chicken, cranberries, mandarin oranges tomato, onion and Parmesan and crumbly blue cheeses that pleases the palate.
A variety of pasta, sandwiches, calzones and pizzas are offered and range in price from $3.25 for a cheese sandwich to $7.25 for their fresh fried haddock sandwich. All of the bread is made fresh and even with a recent national bump in the price for flour, Niko’s price has stayed the course. “The price of bread has nearly tripled over the course of the past year,” he notes, “ but we have hardly raised our prices at all because we don’t want to cheat our customers out of what they are used to.”
And with the made-to-order counter, Ocasio claims they can have you out of there within 10 minutes. “A lot of people don’t have much time for lunch,” he says. “We can have a line out the door during the lunch rush and we are very efficient at getting them back on their way if they want to bring their order back to the office with them.” For those who would rather stay away from the workplace as long as possible, Niko’s has plenty of seating available.
No Greek-affiliated place is worth its toga if they don’t have one ingredient, and Niko’s has it. Top off your lunch with a slice of baklava for $2.75. The walnut or pistachio pastry mixed with syrup and honey is one fine treat you don’t find in too many places, and is something that the Easter Bunny himself would wear his own foot around his neck in hopes for.
“We’re always open for lunch,” says Ocasio. “We’re mainly open until 6 or 6:30 p.m., but in the summertime we’ll stay open later when the festivals or concerts are going on in Hanover Square.” Officially, they list their hours as Mondays through Fridays, 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. For information, call 475-7000.