If there's one thing you could use to convince an out-of-towner that Dallas is a city worth visiting, the first-class city its leaders want so badly for it to be, it would likely be the Arts District. It's the largest in the country, according to people who know such things, and while bigger isn't always better, you can certainly find plenty of pretty things there.
At the Meyerson, the dark, repetitive machinations of a Philip Glass suite drop you right on the set of Tim Burton's next film. Just down the street, a single piece at the Dallas Museum of Art can prompt an afternoon-long smile, while an artist's retrospective can send your head spinning. The Nasher's sculpture garden is an outdoor oasis, as long as you bring your sunglasses, and the Wyly is a cool enough building to wander around when it's empty, let alone when Dallas Theater Center is doing its theater thing. Creativity this inspiring can take you somewhere else entirely and provide a reprieve from the searing heat and pocked streets that can make Dallas life feel like a chore.
Food can do that, too, and it seems like the restaurants that flank the Arts District would, or should, or could, do their best to stand up to their often world-class counterparts. But in the case of The Greek, which opened last fall in One Arts Plaza, the kitchen cranks out a turnkey menu that caters to clock-watching crowds sweating an 8 p.m. curtain time. Instead of whisking you away to a coastal trattoria in Greece, where massive octopi hang in a cool ocean breeze, you're reminded you're still right here in Dallas, you're all out of Claritin and summer is coming.
In this same slice of prime corner real estate, The Commissary once served up an eclectic mix of fine-dining tasting menus and burgers cooked by acclaimed chef John Tesar with steam in a computerized contraption. The pairing was odd, but at least it was interesting. Unfortunately, creativity wasn't enough. Tesar bailed and within a few months The Commissary closed.
The day the sign came down a replacement was announced. Costa and Mary Arabatzis, who also own Ziziki's in Uptown and Ziziki's Tavern in North Dallas, were ready for a third. Their new spot, The Greek, now serves up what feels like Greek cruise-ship food, wrapped in the same bread that accompanies the gyro platter at every college cafeteria.
It doesn't take a master baker to conjure romance from flour, yeast and water. Anyone with the time, patience and the right equipment can turn these three simple ingredients into a staple worthy of an aria. Scores of similar restaurants serve house-baked bread — right down the street, Samar's fiery tandoor turns out beautifully blistered naan — but The Greek shortcuts real baking, opting for commercial loaves shipped from Canada. The move ignores suburban commercial bakeries right here in Dallas that produce far superior bread, and it ruins what could actually be a nicely hand-crafted gyro.
Forget the emulsified lamb loaf shaved from a spinning meatsicle. The Greek uses real pork — thinly sliced, perfectly cooked, honest-to-God-real-pork shoulder — in its gyros. They grind meat in-house for a lamb version of the sandwich, too. Both versions are almost good enough to forgive the bad bread, but the kitchen gets a little crazy with the yogurt sauce and cheese, making for a sloppy and overwhelmed sandwich.
A lamb burger arrives the size of a Labrador puppy's face, and it'll leave you just about as wet. Topped with a salad's worth of lettuce (iceberg and loose leaf), a quarter-inch hunk of halumi cheese and too much yogurt, the sandwich drips with sauce as you take bites and wrestle with the bun. The burger is cooked as requested, a perfect medium in my case, but the meat isn't seared enough, and it lacks that pungent gaminess that makes lamb lamb.
The soft and tender lamb skewers pack more flavor, but the meat is served in a pile of orzo pasta drenched in a runny creamy sauce meant to mimic risotto. The same soupy mixture is used as a base for seared sea bass, and while the fish tastes fresh and is plenty moist, machine-pitted olives and overcooked fennel slices make for plate that's not as refined as it should be. At $29, more should be expected from a dish than another variation on the runny risotto theme.
A mousaka is better, filled with layers of eggplant and ground lamb laced with sweet spices that work well together, but it arrived lukewarm during one of my visits. Like the short ribs served with mashed potatoes, some dishes ought to be made ahead and reheated — they taste better this way. But when four entrées arrive less than 10 minutes after they're ordered, you start to wonder if the kitchen is relying on a bit too much prep.
Some of the small plates may capture your attention, and they're more suited to a quick pre-show meal. Keftedes (meatballs) loaded with fresh aromatics and served in a vibrant tomato sauce are tender and filling. And lamb chops served on polenta balanced with piquillo pepper slices make for a light, carnivorous, bone-cleaning snack. Baby octopi, braised for hours, are tender and served on a nice bed of soft white beans. They'd be even better if the kitchen finished them over fire or a searing hot pan — just a touch.
Though you'll have to brave more of that bread, the dips here are safe, as are the platters of olives and cured meats. But pass on the dolmas completely. Filled with pasty, squishy rice, they taste like they were made days ago.
The Greek is absolutely packed on a night when a big event is scheduled nearby. It draws an impressive weekday lunch crowd, too. For those looking to eat on the fly before an afternoon office meeting or an evening curtain call, it's obviously striking a chord. But there's so much being left on the table in terms of technique and refinement it's hard eat with enthusiasm here. There's just too much inspiration, in the food and the art and the architecture, waiting a short walk away.