Branzini with Bouzouki
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.
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.
"It's all terrible," said my tablemate Steve Louis, a Greek-American Houstonian who spends a lot of time in Greece. He voted for something from California. But I wasn't going to give up so easily.
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.
The success of Molyvos inspired a young Greek-American chef named Michael Psilakis to go even wilder at a New York restaurant called Onera, where he became famous for 21st-century Greek dishes like his braised goat moussaka.
Last month, I visited the newly opened Psilakis venture called Dona, an Italian-Greek fusion restaurant on New York's East Side that Psilakis co-owns with the sexy New York restaurant diva Donatella Arpaia. The crusty salt cod with creamy bufala ricotta and skordalia were spectacular. Some of what Psilakis cooks is too over-the-top for even the most adventurous diners. But the buzz he has created has definitely put Greek cooking in the national spotlight.
John Gioldasis, the owner of Alexander the Great Greek, took on the admirable mission of introducing Houston to upscale Greek dining when he first opened the place a little over four years ago. And the fresh fish and seafood dishes he touts are the clearly the best things on the menu.
But Gioldasis didn't want to disappoint people who came looking for conventional Greek food, so the menu includes a section somewhat derisively titled "Old Traditional."
One afternoon my daughter and I split an item from the "Old Traditional" menu called "lunch for two." We started out with the stuffed grape leaves filled with meat and rice called dolmades, here served warm with a white sauce over the top. Then we moved on to the spanakopita, baked phyllo triangles stuffed with a rich and garlicky spinach-and-cheese mixture. There was also some of the salty cheese pie called tiropita on the platter.
All the appetizers were pleasant enough. But what really impressed us were the two big squares that towered over the rest of the food: generous portions of pastitsio and moussaka.
Whenever my daughter gets to decide what we're having for dinner, she asks for baked rigatoni. So the pastitsio was right up her alley. The layers of tomato and meat sauce, cheese and pasta might remind you of lasagna. But instead of sheets of pasta, the Greek dish is made with layers of pasta tubes. If you like lasagna, you can't help but love pastitsio.
The stunning moussaka at Alexander the Great Greek is made with a rich meat mixture seasoned with tomato sauce and aromatic spices including cinnamon and cumin. The meat is moist enough to hold the slices of cooked eggplant together. The combination of the spicy meat and the comfortingly bland béchamel are a culinary yin and yang that balance out on your palate.
Alexander the Great Greek is doing a good job of being all things to all people. Not only is the new Greek cuisine excellent, they do the best job in town on the traditional stuff. They also serve a gyro sandwich at lunch that's very good, though the french fries aren't as good as the ones you get with the pita sandwiches at Yia Yia Mary's.
At the next table, two fashionable young women were eating enormous salads. One had a piece of grilled salmon on top, and the other had some grilled chicken breast. It's odd that the Greek salad with lots of lettuce topped with grilled chicken, fish or gyro meat has become such a standard of Greek-American restaurants, considering that they don't eat much lettuce in Greece.
"If you want lettuce in a Greek salad in Greece, you have to ask for an American salad," Steve Louis told us over dinner the night of the floor show.
"The American version of Greek food -- Greek salads and gyro sandwiches -- is like the fast food you get in Athens," he continued. "But you don't see that kind of food in rural Greece."
Authenticity is subjective, but Steve said Alexander the Great Greek reminded him of the little restaurants of the Greek islands, where fish and vegetables are roasted early in the day and then displayed on platters on sideboards or windowsills. You just pick what you want and eat it at room temperature, he explained.
Shortly after we sat down, while we were ordering our dinner, a middle-aged Greek woman who looked a bit like Melina Mercouri in her later years came by our table and introduced herself. Voula Kouluriotu was her name, and she told us she was taking over the restaurant. Rumor has it that John Gioldasis is moving to Austin to start a new career.
So we asked the owner what she recommended. She took the menu and thumbed it back from the seafood selections we were looking at to the "Old Traditional" page. There, she pointed to the sampler platter -- a spread that included the moussaka, the spanakopita and all the same stuff that came on the lunch for two.
My heart sank. I had hoped we might get to try some even more innovative Greek cooking here someday. But I suspect Kouluriotu is an "old traditional." And I'm afraid that under her ownership, Alexander the Great Greek will soon be taking some giant steps backward.
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