Michael’s offers big, fat Greek food

It is a truth universally acknowledged that booth seats are the best seats. It is also inevitable that when a restaurant serves both mozzarella sticks and spanakopita, its diners are in for a ride.

At Michael’s Restaurant, you can kick back in one of many booths and peruse a menu that ranges from completely authentic Greek food to the simplest hot fudge sundae. The menu itself matches the dark burgundy interior and is organized into mezethes (Greek appetizers – the most exciting section with the least English), traditional favorites (like chicken fingers for the non-adventurous types), Greek dinners, Italian dinners, a kid’s menu, sides and desserts. Since the restaurant used to be an A&W root beer stand, it still sells sodas, as well as something called swamp water, which is a dubious mixture of root beer and orange soda. There is bottled and draught beer, a short wine list, Greek coffee (ranging from bitter to “honey sweet” and served in a briki) and American coffee as well. While it may look like a diner, there is nary a sweaty burger to be found.

Chef and owner Cindy Nikitas has run Michael’s for over 20 years, and it has a comfortable well-worn feel. A large circular drawing of a cheerful gentleman, presumably Michael, adorns one wall, and there is a little display case where homemade baklava lies in crinkled paper wrappers. If any one rule could be applied to navigating the menu, it would be to stick to the things you know least. While Michael’s is technically both Italian and Greek cuisine, it clearly specializes in the latter. The penne with marinara tasted as bland as the stuff from Greylock’s pasta bar, and the veal parmesan was disturbingly crunchy. Unless you have a real need for some spaghetti to accompany the garlic toasts that are served before the meal, the Italian side is better left alone.

Luckily, the Greek menu has more than enough to satisfy. The appetizers include baked feta, roasted eggplant dip and stuffed grape leaves, as well as combination plates for the indecisive. The Aegean plate ($7.95) arrives with a large, greasy but delicious, square of spanakopita (spinach pie), feta cheese, tomatoes, Kalamata olives and hummus so garlicky it puts even extreme hummus to shame. Accompanying this sampler feast is pita bread, which is somehow always better when it is cut into triangular wedges. Nor is the pasta a la Greque ($12.95) for the garlic-shy, containing broccoli sautéed with minced garlic and olive oil and tossed with soft feta, equally soft penne and a little white wine and butter. Unlike the pasta, the broccoli was refreshingly not limp, although completely saturated with the sharp bite of garlic. The whole dish is a lot of fun to eat, but the resultant toll on your breath is somewhat of a party downer.

In addition to the extensive menu, Michael’s also features daily specialties that are as hit-or-miss as the regular features. A split pea soup ($3.25) with local organic butternut squash (the restaurant is a member of Berkshire Grown, a local farm organization) and smoked turkey sounds like an interesting take on the pea soup-smoked bacon classic, but the double blandness of squash and pea together cancel out all other flavors. However, the rosemary-braised lamb shank ($17.95) benefits from the clarity of one dominant taste. The mild gaminess of the meat is infused into the orzo and squash bed that it is served on, and the lamb itself is so tender that you don’t mind that the only rosemary found in the dish is the sprig served on top as a garnish.

The portions at Michael’s are daunting, and most entrées come with the option of a soup (French onion is a safe choice) or salad (skip it to leave room for the better things to come). One featured dessert is Indian pudding ($4.95), which is all dark brown sugar, molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, served with a tidy scoop of vanilla ice cream. At the end of the day, it’s hard to come away without trying the homemade baklava that greets you at the door. This honey-drenched, flaky pastry layered with crumbled walnuts definitely delivers, although the sweetness may make your teeth ache a bit when you are licking the last morsel from its oily paper. The menu advertises a baklava sundae that sounded so impossibly bad that it warranted trying. Unfortunately, chocolate syrup drizzled over baklava doesn’t exactly cut the sweetness, although the pastry wouldn’t have been bad with just ice cream.

“But why,” you may ask, “must I make the five-minute drive to a restaurant when I can just go to Driscoll’s Greek lunch every Thursday?” The prices are good for Williamstown, averaging around $12.95 with the specials costing slightly more. Michael’s is a little too casual for a romantic date, but it is the perfect place to go with a big group of people, where you have the freedom to laugh too loudly without feeling rude. Plus, even Snack Bar’s booths are not as big as these.