Friday, October 26, 2007

Erini's a refreshing change at a familiar locale

Drivers on Route 29 over the years have grown accustomed to seeing the name change at the landmark eatery that overlooks the Delaware River.

Originally Landwehr's, then Peroni's, it was Merlino's Waterfront until fire closed it in 2002. It reopened in 2003 as Diamond's Riverside.

In July it became Erini when it was taken over by a family with a long history in the restaurant business and a determination to make their mark on the Mercer County restaurant scene.

Co-owner Chris Fifis practically grew up at Ponzio's, the family- style restaurant his father established in Cherry Hill. After helming the restaurant himself for many years, he sold it in 2000 and became involved in another restaurant.

In 2003 he retired from the res taurant business, or so he thought. Meanwhile, son Nick graduated from culinary school and began to establish his credentials at a series of Philadelphia restaurants.

Eventually, Chris Fifis said, he "got the itch" to get back in the business. Coupled with his son's interest in establishing his own res taurant, the family, including mom Dori, decided it was time to get back to what they know best.

The idea of naming the restau rant after Chris Fifis' mother came from his wife, he said. His mother "was a great chef and a great hostess" at Ponzio's, he said, an inspiration for them in their new endeavor.

That endeavor includes an American-style menu with Mediterranean influences, crafted by Nick Fifis with input from his father.

The menu is not huge, but is large enough to provide something for most tastes. While the restau rant's predecessor concentrated heavily on steaks and chops, Chris Fifis said, they are doing more with fish, especially among the specials. And there are ample beef and pork selections.

Among the short but varied list of appetizers, the salty and aromatic Greek cheese saganaki, $7.50, was fried and served with slices of baguette. A bright splash of lemon added flavor to a generous serving of the mild, lightly chewy cheese.

An extensive selection of fresh oysters was offered on the night we visited, but we chose four of the a la carte Blue Points, $2.25 each, served with three sauces: cocktail, mignonette and horseradish. All three sauces proved overwhelming for the mild flavor of the oysters, which were best enjoyed unadorned in all their cool freshness.

The Greek salad, $8.50, was a hefty serving of lettuces, olives, to matoes, onions, feta cheese, cucumbers and peppers. Served in the optional chopped style, the small, fresh pieces were easily scooped up and eaten. Three stuffed grape leaves accompanied the salad, which was dressed in a zesty combination of balsamic and wine vinegars with no oil.

Among the entrees, sautéed jumbo lump crab cakes, $26.90, were a crab-lover's delight, with huge chunks of fresh Maryland crab held together with a minimal amount of filling. Two fat crab cakes were an ample serving paired with freshly sautéed spinach and garlic chive mashed potatoes.

Greek pasta, $24.50, was a plate of freshly cooked angel hair pasta topped with fresh spinach placed strategically on the noodles so the heat would wilt them slightly.

A combination of sun-dried and plum tomatoes, kalamata olives, garlic, toasted parmesan and crumbled feta cheese created an explosion of flavor to go with a half- dozen sautéed shrimp assembled around the rim of the bowl.

But a five-wine compote helped to make an order of Berkshire pork chops, $24.90, the favorite of the night.

The compote, made with caramelized shallots, was so good that our server quoted one customer who told her he would have licked his plate if he hadn't been out in public. And yes, it's that good, as are the chops and an inspired sweet potato gratin that serves as a side dish. Composed of thin layers of sweet potato alternating with layers of rutabaga, it was delightful.

Two desserts, $6.95 each, were made in-house; thick wedges of apple cake were moist and flavorful, while a creme brulee was among the best we've tasted.

Many of the servers at Erini have remained through its varied incarnations, and are experienced and accommodating. They also are delighted with the new ownership and a variety of upgrades the family plans for the property.

The only drawback is that some nights the parking lot can appear nearly filled, but the cars often are for special events in the two ban quet facilities. This leaves the din ing room comparatively empty. So when the sign out front reads "immediate seating," Fifis says to be lieve it. Rest assured that inside someone is waiting to serve in spired food in a pleasant, elegant setting.
1140 River Road (Rt. 29) Ewing, NJ 609.882.0303