Varka is one of those restaurants that just begs you to eat at the bar. That's not to say the dining room is uncomfortable or overly-formal or stuffy, but the bar just seems so right. Maybe that's because you can do very well at Varka with a couple of appetizers and a couple of glasses of Greek wine. Or a martini if that's your thing. Or maybe it's because you get these jammin olives at that bar:
We've eaten at Varka probably 5 or 8 times since it opened about a year ago. We were certainly early adopters of the place, and never thought it was unreasonably pricey or anything less than very good all-around. We still think that way, and we're happy a bunch of others do as well.
Here's what you need to know:
Varka is a Greek fish house, and as such, they have lots of offerings of extremely fresh whole fish, simply prepared with olive oil and fresh herbs. This is one of my favorite ways of eating fish, and I return as much as I can for whole fish.
However, they do have some exceptional appetizers that keep me coming back (to the bar) more often than my bank account would like.
Grilled octopus: This dish encompasses a few of our favorite things: salty, sour, and charred flesh. The salty comes from some capers. The sour comes from a dressing of oil and vinegar. And the charred flesh comes from a pile of grilled octopus. This is probably the best version of this dish that I'd ever had. At this point it is to me the Gold Standard. At 17 dollars it's pricey for an appetizer, but it's easily shared by 2 or 3, or, you can just consider it an entree, which is what I do. If you don't think you like octopus, try this, and think again.
Mussels: These mussels are served in an outstanding slightly sweet broth made with Ouzo, feta, scallion, and tomato. I'm not a big fan of mussels, so I'd just take them out, put them in that extra bowl you get, and drink the broth. Although, I'm told the mussels are very tender and sweet. Good things, I suppose, for mussels. You can approach it however you feel comfortable.
Four grilled shrimp (there should have been 5, or they could have been less money quite frankly) served simply with some olive oil needed salt, desperately. Other than that, they were nicely cooked. You can swing this at home, though, so we're not really blown away by this dish.
I wish Varka had more Greek wines by-the-glass. But, there's always at least one (of both colors). We've been sucking down the 2004 Kourtaki Kouros , wich is from Patras and made from the Rhoditis grape (really, is there anything more exciting than trying wine from grapes you've never had?). It's a straight-forward zippy white that's very food-friendly to my mind. And perfect for that octopus. Others might characterize it as mass-produced swill created for the American palate. But who cares.
I've gotten the impression that Varka is basically aiming for a New York City vibe in Bergen County. Some of the kitchen staff, and maybe the front of house, come from the relatively tight community of Manhattan Greek restaurants, including Milos and Avra, which are excellent restaurants in their own right. I think they pretty much meet their goal: the place has energy, it's usually crowded, and the bar is just about always packed.
They've got some really nice outdoor seating, which seems to get lots of sun in the late day. It's near the sidewalk, but this street in Ramsey isn't very well-traveled. I can see myself spending an afternoon out there, sipping greek wine and noshing on grilled octopus. Not a bad afternoon, I'd think.