08/19/2012 12:58 PM
Go to any Greek restaurant worth its stuffed grape leaves and you’re likely to see Saganaki on the menu. The flaming cheese is arguably the most festive appetizer available at restaurants of any ethnicity. The roots of this dish can be traced back to 1968 at The Parthenon at 314 S. Halsted.
Fried cheese was not a new phenomenon at Greek restaurants, but serving it flamed tableside hadn’t been attempted previously. Founder Chris Liakouras invented the serving technique after a patron suggested the idea, said his daughter Yanna.
“My father had to work long and hard at the logistics,” she said. “He had to think about what kind of cheese to use and what kind of liquor would work best to create the flame. He also needed a special serving plate, which didn’t exist in this country, so he had it exported from Greece.”
Actually, the word Saganaki means “little frying pan.” Chris Liakouras eventually settled on the right kind of cheese (Kaseri) and the right liquor (brandy). The taste was just right, and it had a bit of show-stopping theatricality. The rest is food history.
“It’s a sheep’s milk cheese,” Yanna said. “Most other Greek restaurants use Kafalotiri, which is a bit harder and saltier. I think it’s because they don’t want to copy the Parthenon’s recipe—it’s a pride thing with restaurants to be original.”
Saganaki will be a featured dish at Taste of Greektown next weekend, although The Parthenon’s other popular appetizers, like gyros, will also be available.
Since the invention of Saganaki 44 years ago, the dish is now commonplace at Greek restaurants across the country, and it has even found its way to Greece. Yanna Liakouras was vacationing in the Santorini region some years back and went to a restaurant where flaming cheese was on the menu. She walked back to the kitchen and asked, “Who’s the boss?”
The head chef identified himself, and she asked, “Which restaurant in Chicago did you work at?”
His answer: The Parthenon, of course.