Glut Reaction

Glut Reaction

In my less disciplined moments, the idea of a rich vanilla milkshake topped with a moist chewy brownie and a mountain of whipped cream, cookie crumbs and drizzled chocolate syrup, served in a sundae glass coated with vanilla frosting covered with mini-M&Ms, becomes irresistible. There’s a price to pay for such indulgence, involving overworked digestive enzymes, corrective probiotics and Pepto-Bismol—but damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Such ideas come to life at the Westville Diner, thanks to the playful imagination of co-owner Joanna Perselis, who’s created a Willy Wonka-land of similarly ambitious treats dubbed “Cray Cray” shakes. There’s my choice, the Crazy Brownie ($15.99), as well as, for starters, the Strawberry Cheesecake ($16.99), a strawberry milkshake topped with a slice of cheesecake, whipped cream, drizzled strawberry sauce, Reese’s Pieces and a rim of vanilla frosting rolled in pink sprinkles. Fortune will clearly favor the brave in confronting these edible artworks; as it happened, I could only finish half of mine.

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That’s in part because there’s such an abundance of other tempting dishes to try. Though you’ll find a familiar assortment of paninis, wraps, salads, soups, burgers, fries, triple-decker sandwiches and entrees (a homemade baked meatloaf with mashed potatoes, gravy and a vegetable, for $16.99, is an ever-popular staple), plenty of surprises dot the menu. The Thanksgiving Tower ($18.99), a vertical construction of oven-roasted turkey, sourdough bread, mashed potatoes, green beans and turkey gravy, has become a runaway favorite. The Creamy Spinach Parmesan Chicken ($18.99) I tried, served over al dente penne pasta and featuring the tenderest of chicken breast in a rich cheese sauce, could’ve easily served two. Brisket of beef turns up in more than one variation, including as a dinner special with vegetables and in a breakfasty form with eggs Benedict. Entrees are typically preceded by your choice of soup or garden salad, and in my experience, these garden salads are special: perfectly fresh assemblages of greens dressed with artfully positioned slices of cucumber, grape tomatoes and Greek olives.

A unique breakfast menu is served all day, featuring homemade fish cakes with scrambled eggs and grits (topped with cheese and lobster bisque sauce), buffalo chicken and pastrami omelets and chicken served over a Belgian waffle with hot syrup. I’d advise French toast lovers to order the Banana Caramel French Toast ($12.59). Made with challah bread and perfectly ripe sliced bananas, my order would have seemed impossibly light even if bathed in twice the caramel sauce.

Perselis, a native of Greece’s Kasos Island (not far from Crete), is a food service veteran, who began training in her aunt’s restaurant when she first arrived in the United States at age 19. She moved on to operating her own food truck in The Bronx for many years, serving kebabs, hotdogs and salsas. It was her nature as “more of a people person,” she says, that made her hanker to run her own brick-and-mortar establishment. Though she considered locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, her childhood friend Foula Mastromanolis, owner of North Haven’s State Street Cafe, pointed her toward the Whalley Avenue location that had formerly housed the long-lived Athenian Diner.

Mastromanolis and Perselis partnered on the new business and made the venture a family affair by bringing their husbands, both named George, on board. George M., Perselis says, is the “ideas man” who travels to eateries all over the country checking out diner trends, while her husband is a homebody who runs Westville Diner’s kitchen with a tight-knit team of seven. After just nine months of management and a lot of experimentation, she’s planning to streamline some ideas and expand others. All the dishes currently available may not make it to the new menu she’s planning to publish soon. “We wanted to test the waters on what people really like before we settle on our signature menu,” she says.

At the same time, she’s always hungry for customer suggestions. She’d like to offer a bigger variety of desserts other than the Cray Cray shakes, baked goods (some of which are homemade) and puddings that are offered as a bonus to those who order off the diner’s Early Bird menu, available 3 to 6 p.m. She aspires to provide homemade whipped cream for her shakes and to create a “house” dressing for those pretty little garden salads. Despite requests from certain clients, Perselis is reluctant to add too many more Greek dishes to a menu that already includes spanakopita, Amalfi chicken—a family recipe—and “authentic gyros with everything.” Though some customers have specifically suggested pastitsio, a Greek form of lasagna with bechamel sauce, she isn’t sure the dish would gain enough popularity to justify its labor-intensive quality: “It takes two hours to make.”

Not all her plans have to do with food. She’s pursuing a wine and beer license, which she feels would enliven the monthly fundraising karaoke nights the diner hosts in collaboration with Arts in CT. She also hopes to offer live music events. Another goal is to extend the diner’s closing past 9 p.m., at least some nights of the week, though that would require hiring another manager. “I already work 14 hours every day,” she says, commuting from her country home in Oxford.

Efforts are currently underway to spark community loyalty to Westville Diner through a couple of promotions: a VIP program (sign up at the website and be part of a select group to hear about exclusive events, secret menus and special offers) and a contest (submit your review of a dish you tried before September 1 and you may just win $500). However those shake out, the plan is to continue blending homestyle cooking with high standards. “To us, quality is very important,” she says. “You get what you pay for. Greeks are not cheap,” she insists, and at least in her case, that seems to hold true.

The Westville Diner
1426 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Daily 7am-9pm
(475) 241-3149

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image, of the Crazy Brownie Cray Cray Shake, by @westvillediner.

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