Saturday, August 8, 2009

Felini Restaurant: Eat There!

This is one of my very favorite restaurants in Columbia, for several reasons. And I worry about them—Columbia has a very competitive restaurant scene, and I’m not sure many people know what to make of this restaurant.

So here is why I love Felini. The links I include below are to Columbia Daily Tribune articles; here is the Felini Restaurant Facebook page.

First: The Owners

Felini is locally owned and family run. More than that, the owners, the Canhasi family, are immigrants, Kosovar-Albanian refugees who are trying like nuts to live the American dream. Learning about their story makes me predisposed to wish them well. They came to America after a harrowing journey out of their homeland. They got factory jobs, worked their fingers to the bone, scrimped and saved, polished their English, and kept their dream alive in their hearts. They passed their citizenship tests and are now proud Americans.

They had been restaurateurs in Kosovo, before the war. Their restaurant there was also named Felini, after the Italian film director. The spelling reflects the Albanian spelling of the Italian name. The Kosovo Felini was destroyed during the war.

So if the Canhasis can make it, that means the American dream of “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is still . . . possible. Still alive. So if you ever think to yourself “God bless America” or “buy American,” make sure to patronize the restaurants and other businesses of people like our ancestors, who came here willing to work hard, to reap the benefits of their life’s labor.

Second: The Food

At Felini the food is wonderful. The Canhasis know their business. The food is excellent, although it may not be exactly what we’re used to eating. I don’t know about you, but Albanian cuisine is new for me. And at this point—I suspect because Columbia’s not quite ready for Albanian cuisine—the Canhasis have gradually turned the restaurant into a full-fledged “Greek” restaurant—albeit with a few traditional dishes from their own country.

Among the latter have been Tava Sautee, a rich, stewy blend of vegetables, tomatoes, chicken (if you want meat; or you can get it with just vegetables), topped with mozzarella and cooked and served in an oven-proof clay bowl. Another favorite is Qoftethes, which is seasoned ground beef filled with mozzarella cheese and topped prettily with thin, looping lines of mayonnaise, served alongside a mild rice pilaf, roasted potatoes, and (when the restaurant first opened), a small side of cooked beets.

Alas: The menu has recently changed again and the two dishes I just described are no longer on the menu—I suspect because they’re too heavy for summertime eating in Missouri. The menu has instead expanded on chicken and fish dishes, as well as sandwiches—the Greek kind, on pitas. They are trying to get more student business, I think. Although their prices have always been very reasonable, I think the sandwiches offer diners lower price tags.

I am hoping that when the weather turns chilly again, they’ll bring back some of their heartier dishes, even if it’s just for one night a week as a special. These dishes are one of the big things that set them apart.

At this point, the only dish on the menu that seems especially Albanian, and not Greek or Italian, is the Kebobs Appetizer. I have to tell you, though, that if you’re expecting chunks of grilled steak on a skewer, you’ll be surprised. The beef is ground, seasoned, and formed into link shapes. If you get it as an appetizer, they are artfully arranged like spokes on a small, homemade bread round similar to a thick-crust pizza, atop marinara sauce and with mozzarella cheese, mushrooms, feta, and parsley.

Another great thing about the food is its presentation—the meals are harmonious in terms of flavors, textures, and colors and are beautifully decorated with sauces, garnishes, relishes, and vegetables. My favorite meal there is the Rainbow Trout dinner, which includes a grilled, whole trout (minus the bones), rice pilaf, steamed vegetables, tzatzike sauce, a few dollops of their buttery-light flavored feta cheeses, and crispy potatoes. It’s so pretty it makes me smile when they bring it out for me.

Among the Greek and Italian dishes are gyros, chicken souvlaki, tuna calzone, chicken modiga, grouper primavera, Mediterranean salmon and shrimp (prepared en papillote), dolmathes, lasagna, lamb chops, and a Greek combination platter.

Each dinner table receives a homemade Albanian-style pita, which is something like a big, hot dinner roll—raised, not a flatbread—with olive oil for dipping.

Our favorite appetizer is the Greek Dip Medley—a simple combination of hummus, taramusalada, and tsatzike served with warm triangles of Greek pita bread—but so artfully presented that you can’t help but enjoy the view of it before you dig in. (And now I’m addicted to taramusalada—my first bite of it, and I was going, “What is this stuff? It’s terrific! I could take a bath in it!”)

There are two dynamite soups available, as well: Avgolemono (chicken, orizo pasta, egg, and lemon) and Domate Supa, which is an incredibly rich and flavorful blend of fresh chopped tomato, celery, parsley, oregano, romano cheese, and red wine, simmered slowly. Sue says she could take a bath in this: “Compared to Campbell’s, it’s like tomato soup from a parallel universe, where everything’s way, way better.”

The desserts include two traditional items that you just have to try: The Piano Cake and the Galaktobureko. The former is difficult to describe, but features interlaced vanilla and chopped-walnut chocolate cake to form “piano keys.” The latter is a chilled Greek custard baked with phyllo pastry and served in a small pool of sweet, light, cinnamon syrup. Mmmm.

Third: The Ambience

You already know that the feel of a place means a lot to me; it’s reflected in the way the servers treat you, the way the place is decorated, and how many distractions there are. At Felini, you feel like a guest in someone’s home. It’s a nice home, with nice furnishings, so you want to sit up straight, wear something casual but nice, and display good behavior—but because it’s someone’s home, you are encouraged to have a wonderful conversation and to have a good time.

That’s how it feels; it reminds me of my Grandma S’s house, where the food was fantastic, the conversation was sparkling and spirited, and where singing might erupt at any minute. Maybe I’m simply describing what others might call a European or Old World ambience.

They offer a substantial selection of wines and beers, but even with the flaming-cheese appetizer, the restaurant is absolutely not a rowdy college hangout. Hooray!

Sue and I love to come here after the symphony, to have a beverage and an appetizer or dessert. (Sue loves to have a glass of Macon-Lugny les Charmes Chardonnay; I love it that they offer Clausthaler n/a beer.) It’s comfortably laid-back, our concert duds go okay with the surroundings, and the libation and food is just right for a bite on a night on the town.

There are no obnoxious TVs hanging on the wall, and the music they play is from the Old Country. The Canhasis have decorated with dolls, costumes, rugs, and other items from Albania.

In general, they’ve put a great deal of themselves into the restaurant; they’ve created a little slice of their homeland for us to enter and enjoy. What a huge treat for us!

So eat at Felini—and pass it around.

Addendum (June 10, 2010)

I'm sad to report that Felini Restaurant has closed its doors. Man, oh man, am I going to miss them! I wish the Canhasis the best of luck in all their future endeavors, and I thank them for sharing a taste of their homeland with me, and for inspiring me to be a better cook and hostess.

And if they decide to open a new restaurant hereabouts, I'm going to be first in line to check it out!


Felini on Urbanspoon


Bonnie said...

Hey Julie,

I tried them once a few years ago and was underwhelmed. Based on your enthusiasm, I'll definitely give them another shot.

Julie said...

They have a real willingness to please and have tweaked their menu over the years. Take advantage of the relaxed, elegant atmosphere and have a lovely conversation with someone while you're there. I could sit there for hours, talking, drinking, and nibbling on things. And Bonnie, make sure you try the Domate Supa and/or Greek Dip Medley--I know you'll like those.

River Notes said...

Domate Supa with their yummy sweet bread. That's all I need.

Julie said...

Amen! And that soup is sounding better and better as the weather turns chilly!