By Kaitlin Steinberg
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By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
Four of us were seated at a table up front next to the stage at Alexander the Great Greek on Sage. It was Friday night, and as we finished our entrées, an entertainer named George Kitidis introduced himself to the crowd. He came out strumming his bouzouki, the traditional Greek instrument that looks like a long-necked mandolin.
It was the first time any of us had eaten dinner at the restaurant, and we were blown away by the sophisticated Greek food. Especially impressive was an order of branzini, a sea bass that's imported from the Mediterranean.
The branzini special went for around $50 and was intended to serve two people. The whole fresh fish was split, deboned and broiled with a dusting of salt, pepper and herbs. It came on a large metal platter surrounded by lemon wedges, roasted peppers and squash.
Houston, TX 77056
Gyro and fries: $8
Lunch for two: $22
Charbroiled octopus: $12
Snapper with scallops and artichokes: $22
Chicken and asparagus: $18
It was a lot of fish. We put it in the middle of the table and shared it four ways. The bright white flesh was firm, flavorful and exceptionally fresh-tasting, and the preparation was amazing in its simplicity.
We also tried a more elaborate chicken dish in which a pounded cutlet had been wrapped around asparagus spears and Greek cheeses then baked. The flavor was salty, owing to the high salinity of the cheeses, and the chicken meat was a tad dry. A sauce might have helped, but for the most part Greek cuisine doesn't use them.
For an appetizer, we had ordered a plate of grilled octopus. The strong-flavored and slightly chewy tentacles were fringed with a delightful char and tossed in an olive oil-and-herb dressing. The appetizer was a little too assertive for my tablemates, so I ate most of it myself, washing it down with a tart Greek white wine.
Now my companions wanted to switch to red wine. The waiter stood at our table awaiting our selection from the list. I confessed to the table that I knew absolutely nothing about Greek wine.
The bouzouki player was wandering around the dining room serenading tables, and at that moment he walked up to ours. "George, what kind of Greek red wine should we order?" I asked, holding out the wine list to the musician.
"Omega!" said the animated bald musician over his strumming. "It's the best!"
"Bring us a bottle of Omega," I told the waiter.
"It's not on the menu, and it's $52 a bottle," the waiter warned.
"Let's try it anyway," I said with a shrug.
The wine was a big hit. It turned out to be an innovative blend of indigenous Greek wine grapes and Cabernet. The name of the wine wasn't Omega, although that's a pretty handy mnemonic aid. The label on the bottle read Megas Oenos Red, 2003.
Further research revealed that it was a famous wine. It's bottled by George Skouras, a leader of the Greek wine industry. After Greece entered the EEC in 1979, the country was forced to bring its wines into line with European rules, which resulted in a revamping of the industry and the emergence of a new generation of Greek winemakers, with Skouras as one of its leaders.
Skouras blended his Megas Oenos Red so that the intense fruit flavors wallop your taste buds in the New World style. The idea was to get a foot in the door of the American market with a Cab blend, then push the obscure and ancient varietals that are his true obsession. Whatever his motivations, Skouras has produced a Greek red wine that even the most skeptical snobs can love.
I had the waiter pour some wine for George the bouzouki player too, which earned us his undying gratitude. A fetching young belly dancer was the next entertainer. After a slow reveal with the many veils, she showed off her rippling abs. Then she made her way around the restaurant recruiting women (and a few men) to join her on the stage.
I asked Steve Louis if he thought Alexander the Great Greek was authentically Greek. He looked around the place, a fairly nondescript shopping center space with lots of fake Greek columns. "Well, this part is," he said, indicating the belly dancer. "Greeks love a floor show."
It's difficult to judge Greek food in terms of authenticity these days. Upscale Greek food is one of the hottest trends in New York at the moment. The movement got started in 1997 when Ruth Reichl, then the restaurant critic at The New York Times, gave three stars to a white-linen-tablecloth restaurant called Molyvos, where a young chef named Jim Botsacos was turning out Greek food with an upscale Italian flair.
I've visited Molyvos twice in the last five years, and both meals were outstanding. Botsacos pushes the Greek-cuisine envelope by combining traditional Greek preparations that aren't usually seen together. In combinations like crispy cod with marinated beets and skordalia (a potato, garlic and olive oil dip), and pan-seared wild striped bass with wild mushroom stifado (a stew with red wine), he finds a way around the cuisine's traditional lack of sauces. Maybe it isn't authentic, but the results are stunning.