Make a scene on your next dinner date with the Old World’s most infernal cheese dish.
The origins of flaming saganaki are debatable, but Chicago restaurateur Chris Liakouras is generally thought to have the strongest claim on the flambéed cheese dish, which he contends was invented in 1968 at his now-closed Parthenon restaurant. Whatever its provenance, this popular Greek meze (appetizer) can turn any ho-hum happy hour into a head-turning tableside event, with flickering flames and exuberant cries of opa (a Greek expression of enthusiasm), which is also thought to be an American invention, not often heard in Greece.
At Scottsdale’s Mediterranean-inspired CALA (7501 E. Camelback Rd., Scottsdale, 480-590-5676, calascottsdale.com), executive chef Peter McQuaid presents flaming saganaki ($24, pictured) in a cast iron skillet bearing a plentiful cut of sizzling Greek kasseri cheese that’s been dipped in flour, roasted in the oven and then doused with Greek brandy. The server lights the salty sheep’s milk cheese ablaze at the table and extinguishes the flame with a generous squeeze of tangy lemon to balance the fat. The resulting crusty, melted cheese imparted with lemon pairs nicely with house-made focaccia flecked with roasted garlic and rosemary, and a frosty glass of Pinot Grigio. The showstopper appetizer reflects CALA’s lively vibe. “When tables of eight or 10 come in and order four, we like to light them all together,” McQuaid says. “It’s a fun way to start the meal, and very Instagrammable.”
Augie Athenson, owner of Athens on Easy Street (121 Easy St., Carefree, 480-618-0014, athensoneasy.com), says serving flaming saganaki ($12) prompts other curious diners to order the blazing cheese. In addition to kasseri cheese, which has a low melting point, Athenson uses kefalograviera, a salty sheep’s milk cheese with a harder skin, and opts for a wet flour and water batter that produces a crustier shell. Pita triangles are served alongside, providing a sturdy anchor for the gooey, full-bodied cheese. You can also order flaming saganaki with honey and sesame ($2 extra) mixed in during the cooking process, adding a hint of caramelization and propelling the lemony, booze-doused appetizer into dessert territory. “Flaming saganaki is a good conversation piece,” Athenson says. “It’s a fun dish.”
Saganaki is named for the rugged cast iron pan that cradles the flaming cheese, and in Greek cuisine, the pan is also used to prepare shrimp, mussels and other dishes. True to form, the folks at Opa Life Greek Café (227 E. Baseline Rd., Tempe, 480-292-8180, opatempe.com) serve their flaming saganaki ($13.99) in the requisite skillet with warnings not to touch the scorching-hot pan. After the server lights the brandy- and ouzo-soaked kasseri cheese accompanied by the staff’s eager shouts of opa, the flames soar several feet high until snuffed out with a shower of freshly squeezed lemon juice. The triangular slab of bubbling kasseri is served with warm, pliant pita bread. Finally, the alcohol burns off, leaving a layer of savory, pungent flavor. Opa, indeed.