All Greek to Me

Full of the flavors of the sun and sea, this ancient cuisine is worth revisiting.
The grilled lamb at Yanni’s is good, but wait till you taste the potatoes. photo: Olivier Koning

This month I was fortunate enough to make a short trip to Athens, Greece, for a conference on Greek food and wine.

Greek food is simple, full of flavor and remarkably healthy. Although Greeks smoke endless cigarettes and seem willing to risk death every time they get behind the wheel, they eat a balanced Mediterranean diet that allows them to live longer than Americans. It’s a cuisine worth exploring, a sunshine and seaside cuisine that seems perfectly comfortable in Hawai’i.

The cuisine is matched with some remarkable wines. Greek wine is little known outside Greece. In fact, the 4,000-year-old Greek wine industry seems uncertain about how to take its place in the modern world. I met winemakers who were starting to grow international grapes—merlot, cabernet, sauvignon blanc. To me, that was the wrong way to go.

Greece is full of indigenous Greek varietals that grow nowhere else. These are names that don’t flow off an American’s tongue—xinomavro, agiorghitiko, assyrtiko, moschofilero. Even the Greeks are a little shy about them. In all but the top restaurants, when you ask about the wine, the staff just tells you, it’s a dry red or a dry white.

But Greek white wines can be world class. They’re crisp, minerally, sometimes full of fruit and flower overtones, as un-chardonnaylike as possible. This makes them perfect with food, especially Greek food, with its citrus flavors, sharp sheep’s-milk cheeses, endless eggplants and other vegetables.

I returned to Honolulu still hungry for Greek food and wine. It seemed a perfect month to survey Honolulu’s Greek offerings.

Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd.
Dinner Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight; lunch Thursday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Major credit cards, validated parking

In Honolulu, people expect Greek food to be gyros or perhaps souvlaki, plus a Greek salad, a few wedges of pita, some hummus, all on a single plate.

In Island fashion, we’ve reduced Greek food to a kind of plate lunch, in the same way that Mexican food is always a plate with beans and rice, and Korean food always a plate with four sides of vegetables, if you count macaroni salad as a vegetable.

In Greece, I was only served pita bread once, in a touristy sort of place filled with Germans drinking beer. Instead, Greek meals tend to come with a whole basket full of breads, dark, light, wheat and barley. You dipped the bread in little saucers of olive oil, whipped feta and olive tapenade.

Instead of gyros, which are relegated to fast food, there were amazing plates of lamb and fish, real food.

So I was pleased to return to Honolulu to find that young chef Yanni Trainedes, who grew up with Greek parents in Australia, had opened Yanni’s in Restaurant Row.

Yanni’s is a real restaurant, large, with a display kitchen and appealing décor (check out the stunning chandelier-hung private dining room). The tablecloths are real, and the waitresses aren’t just teens in jeans.

For those who think of Greek restaurants as bargain ethnic eateries, Yanni’s may come as a bit of a shock. It’s a place to eat a large, slow, European-style meal. Appetizers can run $10 to $15, entrées $25. There’s a seafood "Feast of the Gods" for $165, meant to share with a table full of friends, of course.

Since there were only two of us, we passed on the Feast of the Gods, though we managed to spend almost that much by ordering everything on the menu we thought we could possibly eat. The Greeks love appetizers, so we started with four.

The first was a melitzanosalata, a garlicky-lemony eggplant dip that was as good or better than any I’ve tasted, even in Greece. It had great chunky texture, fresh flavors and it wasn’t served with wedges of pita, but with house-made, peasant-style bread rolls.

Then we moved on to saganaki. The Greeks make some excellent semi-hard sheep’s-milk cheeses. They’re fond of grilling them so that they arrive at the table nicely browned, not melted. At Yanni’s, the saganaki was made with kefalograviera—a seriously tasty, almost, but not quite too salty cheese. It comes, like virtually everything you order in Greece, topped with a wedge of lemon.

We ate this with delight. In Athens, I’d ordered grilled cheese every morning for breakfast. I asked Tania Avloniti, one of the women organizing the Greek food and wine conference, what she ate for breakfast. "At breakfast, real Greeks have coffee and a cigarette," she said. Never mind.

For our next appetizer we had a plate of mussels tossed in some wine and thick tomato sauce.

"This is fabulous," said my friend, who gets to Italy every year. "I could eat this all day. But it’s not Greek, it’s Italian."

Well, sort of. The two countries do, after all, sit side by side and share common Mediterranean food culture. Modern Greek restaurants invariably serve pizza and pasta. They think of thick tomato sauces, which they call saltsa, as part of their own cuisine.

However, I was disappointed with the seafood soup we got next. I was hoping for a high-acid, saffron-laden Greek fisherman’s soup. Instead we got pretty much the same dish as the mussels, except soupier. The same tomato sauce, the same mussels, plus some shrimp, scallops and calamari rings. This wasn’t bad at all, but don’t order the dishes back-to-back like we did. It’s one or the other.

Having had four appetizers, we just ordered one entrée, a mixed grill of lamb, chicken and keftethes, little pork-lamb-beef meatballs, zipped up with oregano and mint.

The stars of this plate were the small lamb cutlets marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and herbs. But equally toothsome were the grilled vegetables—which Greeks eat in profusion—and the potatoes, which were boiled, then broiled in a rich garlic cream sauce. They disappeared off the plate.

With food this rich, we needed wine. The list at Yanni’s is heavily Italian, American and Australian. But it has a few Greek wines.

We began with a Santorini, which a waiter in Greece told me was the best white wine in the world. Of course, he was from the island of Santorini, so he may have been partisan. The grape is assyrtiko and the wine, like most Greek whites, is very dry, very crisp, perfect with food.

With the meats, we drank a Nemea, from Greece’s most prestigious wine-growing region. The grape is agiorghitiko, which I can’t pronounce either. It’s commonly translated "St. George." This red has soft tannins, good acid structure, is easy to drink and is good with food.

Although Greek wines are a mystery to most, almost everyone has heard of ouzo. In Greece, I learned to hate the stuff.

Ouzo, like Italian grappa, is liquor distilled from the parts of grapes left over from making wine. But in Greece, it’s flavored with all sorts of things—star anise, coriander, cloves, mint, wintergreen, fennel, hazelnut … and licorice, licorice and more licorice. The end result is firewater that tastes, I kid you not, like Good & Plenty, those pink and white licorice candies you may have eaten as a kid.

For dessert, Yanni’s offers an ouzo-licorice sorbet. Always adventurous, we felt compelled to order it. I didn’t have high hopes.

It was terrific, not too sweet. The tartness of the lemon was balanced—but fortunately not overpowered—by the licorice-y ouzo. I don’t know how, but somehow it worked, zinging the palate from all sorts of unexpected directions.

It was a perfect, light finish to a big meal that ended up costing us $150 with tip and, I have to admit, seven glasses of Greek wine for the two of us.

Puck’s Alley, 1025 University Ave.
Lunch: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday until 9 p.m.
Major credit cards, validated parking

Greek Corner is what most people expect in a Honolulu Greek restaurant. It’s a modest, 36-seat eatery tucked in at the edge of Puck’s Alley. Inexpensive, it draws a steady, university-style clientele.

The blue stencils on the wall and the light fixtures evoke Greece, but in general the interior is crowded and cluttered. Neither the kitchen nor the wait staff seemed particularly ambitious.

We began with a pair of appetizers. The spanokopita—spinach and feta in phyllo pastry—was limp and tired. We ate about half. The marinated grilled eggplant would have been less bitter if the kitchen had taken some of the seeds out of the eggplant, as many Greek recipes request.

The entrées were standard Greek plates, one a chicken souvlaki. Souvlaki means roughly "small chunks." It’s often served on skewers, the Greek version of yakitori. The Greek Corner’s was a bit dry, but you could dip it in the accompanying garlic sauce with a base of what tasted like commercial mayonnaise.

On the mixed grill, both the beef and lamb gyros were a pleasure to eat. Gyros, as you recall, is a kind of spiced Mediterranean meatloaf, turned on a vertical grill and served in thin slices. The third thing on the plate, bits of boneless chicken in a thick mayo sauce, did not rise to the same heights.

Of course, completing the plates were wedges of pita and a Greek salad. In Athens, between puffs on a cigarette, one of the conference organizers explained to me how the Greeks made salads, with tomato, cucumber, olives, feta and fresh herbs.

I told her that you could get a Greek salad in Honolulu. She seemed shocked. "Not everywhere," she insisted. Not everywhere, that’s true, but it’s an inevitable accompaniment to any Greek plate here.

The meal was modest in its ambition and scope. However, it made up for a lot that you could get a Greek white wine by the glass, a moschofilero, full of floral flavors. It helped that the baklava was rich with nuts and spices and sticky with honey. And that a full dinner was relatively inexpensive: $50 with tip.

Koko Marina Center, 7192
Kalaniana’ole Hwy.
Lunch Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m; Dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until 10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Major credit cards, free parking

Greek Marina has a similar menu to, and some ownership ties with, Greek Corner, but it’s a far more attractive restaurant, in both food and setting.

It has seating outside along the Hawai’i Kai Marina, and its kitchen is more lively. Of particular note are its lamb shanks. (Greek Corner also has lamb shanks, called lamb leg, on its menu, but had none in stock.)

Not many Americans eat lamb shanks. They come on the bone and you have to strip the meat away carefully with a fork. Still, it’s my favorite part of the lamb, rich, fatty and full of deep braised flavor.

Greek Marina’s lamb shank is far better than the one I ate in the heavily touristed square near Athens’ Mitro-polis Cathedral. It may not be quite as good as the breaded and herbed one I ate in Kolonaki, but it’s close. I’d eat it any day and it costs only $14.95.

The gyros here are the usual lively, filling fare. But look out for the dish labeled chicken gyros, which isn’t gyros at all, just the same marinated chicken bits as at Greek Corner.

Overall, however, the food’s got life at Greek Marina. The Greeks are fond of filling the table with meze, small dishes. The meze platter here is perfect if you’re hungry.

Ordered for three, it came with gargantuan portions of hummus, tzatziki yogurt dip and baba ghanouj, a spicier North African version of melitzanosalata. And there were deep-fried falafel, grape leaves stuffed with herbed rice and a tabbouleh salad heavy with herbs and parsley.

This was so much, we ended up taking much of it home. Dinner for three was $79 with tip. Greek Marina allows you to bring your own wine, no corkage. Good luck finding a bottle of Greek wine in Hawai’i Kai, but a nice shiraz works just fine with the lamb.

4614 Kilauea Ave.
Dinner Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
No credit cards, free parking

As a restaurant, Olive Tree has some real drawbacks. In a former frozen yogurt parlor near Kahala Mall, you order at the counter, find a table if you can. There are seats, mainly on the lanai, for about 50 people.

Unfortunately, on any given evening, there aren’t enough tables for all the people who want to eat there. Jim Nabors once famously remarked to owner Savas Mojarrad, "Savas, I know I have to bring my own wine. But do I have to bring my own table, too?"

A major portion of the clientele orders dishes to go, so the small kitchen pumps out an amazing quantity of food in an evening.

With all these drawbacks, why is Olive Tree such a success? For the same reason that the Japanese took over the car business. The product was better and cheaper than anyone else’s.

The menu at Olive Tree is limited to a few items, but the food’s remarkable, a result of Mojarrad’s insistence on the best possible ingredients, organically grown if at all possible.

You get the best of things if you order the small meze, the appetizers. I ordered four.

The first was dramatically simple, very Greek—some feta cheese with a dollop of olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano, a handful of dark olives. This was a dish that would stand or fall on the quality of its ingredients.

The feta was from Corsica, not Greece. It’s the feta Mojarrad himself likes best; he says it’s because Corsica has a French cheese-making tradition that’s "internationally acceptable."

The olives were dark as can be, slightly shriveled. They were from Morocco, olives left to ripen fully on the tree, then cured simply in salt. They’re much easier on the palate than olives cured in vinegar, sweeter and deeper in flavor. And they are totally unlike American ripe olives, which are cured in lye, then doused with ferrous gluconate to fix their color.

I’d hoped my family wouldn’t eat the feta, but I had to fight for my share. Similarly, they started consuming most of the teramosalata, dipping in one wedge of pita after another. They were exclaiming how fabulous it tasted until I let slip that it was a dip made from cod fish roe. The news dampened their enthusiasm.

Actually, Mojarrad’s teramosalata was better than any I had in Greece. To fish roe imported from Greece, he adds both mahimahi roe and, for some crunch, tobiko.

One of my daughters is fond of falafel, so I got her a double order. Falafel is ground and spiced garbanzo beans, formed into balls and deep-fried. To me, the results are often a leaden, barely digestible lump. But Mojarrad’s are smaller than most. He adds chopped organic vegetables to the mix, making them considerably lighter and more tasty than the genuine article. In addition, he whips up a dip of tahini, lemon, garlic and Spanish paprika that has a pleasant little kick.

For the fourth appetizer, I ordered gigantes, which are very large white beans, hence the name. Since they’re shaped like lima beans, many people view giganes with suspicion, but they have the same mild flavor as Tuscan white beans. Cooked in tomato sauce, they’re delicious.

Olive Tree’s entrées aren’t ambitious. They are essentially sandwichey kinds of things, wrapped in pita. For the souvlaki, Mojarrad makes a tzatziki with Lebanese yogurt, the closest he can find to the wondrous thick, flavorful yogurt of Greece. The stuff that passes for yogurt on American supermarket shelves is Greek yogurt’s skinny, sour-tempered cousin.

The lamb shawarma—shawarma is the Arabic name for gyros—is spicy. And it’s made even spicier by the same lively sauce that accompanies the falafel.

With both the souvlaki and the shawarma come a helping of the inevitable Greek salad, a little fresher and more flavorful than most.

Olive Tree is BYOB. You don’t have to carry the wine far. Mojarrad has opened Oliver, a Greek deli and wine store, right next door. There you can buy organic and low-sulfite American wines, or select from a reasonably large stock of Greek vintages.

Mojarrad complains that Greek wines are not always carefully shipped and don’t taste as good here as they do in Greece. True, but I still felt the moschofilero from Boutari was perfectly acceptable with the food.

Here’s the kicker. Dinner for three, some of the tastiest food I’d eaten since Athens, cost $35, $50 if you count the bottle of wine I bought. It would be hard to do much better for the same money anywhere in town.