Restaurant Reviews

Greece is the Word

Up north, where Coit performs thoroughfare intercourse with Arapaho, where dwarf trees are bred because shade trees would create a pool-clogging crisis, a huge banner flaps in the wind. It's tethered to Ziziki's, a little dining room with black and white ceramic floor tiles and teal awnings that look like bifurcated umbrellas. It's the northern sibling of Ziziki's on Travis Walk, the restaurant serving Mediterranean fare with Greek and Italian specialties, the one with the name derived from a Greek dipping sauce made of yogurt and cucumber.

The flapping banner announces Sunday brunch, and I figured if a restaurant thinks enough of their Sunday morning breakfast-lunch to banner it, it must be worth a try.

To make the brunch happen, Ziziki's covers the bar with white tablecloths, platters, plates, and steam tables. This could be near fatal for those who need dog hair on Sunday morning to discharge Saturday's residue and prepare for a good productive day of NFL consumption. But there's no worry at Ziziki's, because brunch comes with bottomless mimosas, though they're made with wimpy OJ. They're a little thin, and there's some bitterness, but that could be from bad bubbles.

Most everything else from the bar is good, swell even. Next to the stacks of plates is a fresh platter of cucumber spears, somewhat tired tomato quarters, and a delicious red onion feta cheese salad. There were also wedges of smooth, mild feta cheese that was slightly briny, yet not overly salted. A little beyond that platter, resting in steam tables, are the staples: scrambled eggs and pancakes. The delicious eggs--fluffy, firm, muggy, and without the slimy egg run-off--are seasoned with specks of basil. It's a marvel when a restaurant can keep a scrambled egg youthful in a steam table. Pancakes were thick and feathery with whole blueberries the size of june bugs bleeding juice into the air pockets.

But the contents of a steam table down the line were a bit of a fright. There under the lid, side by side, were Greek island chicken and a pan of roasted lamb balls in Cabernet-mushroom sauce. The lamb, no doubt hacked from a leg, was speckled with fennel and rosemary. It was like mutton: tough, fatty, gristly, and with enough bone chips to keep your dentist stowed in Europe until Halloween. The chicken threatened more dental damage: It looked like bleached scraps of leather, though the breast flesh was tender. And tepid.

Yet what you'd expect from a Greek restaurant is not superb scrambled eggs; it's fantastic dolmas, and here's where there was more slippage. These little combat green bundles of seasoned rice sheathed in grape leaves possessed good tang, but they were mushy and unpleasant. Far better was the chewy, hearty spanakopita: spinach baked with onions and feta cheese and wrapped in delicate phyllo pastry.

To fulfill the Italian specialty designation on the brunch table, there were two penne pasta formulations. One was a zesty hot pasta dish with mushrooms, bell pepper, onion, garlic, and pimiento in tomato sauce. The other was cold with pasty pasta and a milky feta cheese sauce with sun-dried tomato, basil, onion, kalamtas, etc. There were even strips of smoked salmon with bagels, herbed cream cheese, and clusters of onion and capers.

But that's brunch, a steam table orgy with Greek inflections and endless mimosas to keep Sunday morning hopped-up on Vitamin C. How does the real Greek deal stack up, the entrees and such?

Fine, though there were a couple of slips. One place that didn't stumble was the wine list, and Ziziki's justifiably trumpets its wine awards. But I was hoping for something a little more adventurous. Sure, it has a couple of Greek entries, and a few Italians. But for a restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine to have its wine list dominated by California Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Merlot just isn't imaginative.

The tiny northern Ziziki's extension is clean and fresh with yellow and orange notches in the wall holding precious winged figurines. Bottles are displayed on a platform near the front, and the tables are draped in white with oilcloth table prophylactics in muted earth tones.

The menu described the Grecian-herbed calamari as lightly sautéed in olive oil, lemon, and white wine. This implies a daring preparation, one that isn't terrified of cephalopod nudity and bares all without the standard thick breading and grease. It wasn't so. The calamari was a collection of bland, washed-out, mushy rings that were falling out of their weak, flaccid coating. It was accompanied with a bowl of brisk marinara poured next to Ziziki's sauce.

Ziziki's sauce is a tangy cream drafted from a blend of yogurt pestered with Greek spices, olive oil, diced cucumber, and dill. It's included in the lamb souvlaki, which was mostly disappointing. Cubes of dry, gristly lamb skewered on wooden picks are served resting on a supple, moist patch of pita bread. The cubes were tough and lacked sweetness.

Moussaka looked like mutant lasagna. The mélange of grilled, stringy eggplant, bits of lamb, and mashed potatoes with béchamel racing stripes over the top was mushy and suffused in weak flavors.

A berry cheesecake followed this same lead, with crumbly custard and mushy crust that never seemed to get footing enough to work up some flavor.

The original Ziziki's was opened in 1994 by Costa Arabatzis and Mary Cloutier Arabatzis in Travis Walk just off Knox Street. This northerly extension was opened near the beginning of the year, and there's a lot about it that's good, especially on Sunday morning. But you might want to bring your own OJ.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz

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