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Mezze in the Montrose

The gyro sliders are strange but delicious.
Troy Fields

See more photos from Byzantio's kitchen and cozy dining room in our slideshow.

My dining companion, a longtime Montrose resident, remembers a time when Byzantio only had a toaster oven sitting at the end of its long bar. I don't. I never went to Byzantio back in the "old days," when it first opened in 2004. It's difficult to imagine the place these days supplying food on just a toaster oven, especially with a plate of lamb souvlaki in front of me and a magnificent chicken pizza in front of my friend.

It's a Friday night, and the little Greek bar-cum-restaurant in the heart of Montrose is nearly overflowing with people. Most of them, unlike us, are there for the drinks. It's also apparently steak night, although I don't see any steaks landing on the tables. I'm not sure that steak night is a big draw for Byzantio's patrons: tables full of white-collars enjoying Mythos beers after work, middle-aged ladies catching up over frilly-looking cocktails, Greeks chatting animatedly at the bar, gay bois enjoying giant pint glasses of iced coffee, and a few people on casual dates.

It's a warm, comfortable atmosphere that's cosmopolitan without being overtly trendy. The few people who are ordering food are getting plates of Greek food like we did. I couldn't ask for more from the lamb souvlaki itself — tiny, tender knots of meat that slide easily off the wooden skewers and onto my plate. There's very little gamey flavor to the lamb, which has been cooked to a pleasant medium on the grill and seasoned efficiently with just a little salt and pepper. I find myself wishing I'd ordered a different side than the average-tasting, skinny french fries, and the odd ovals of tough French bread add nothing to the plate. But the lamb itself is fabulous. If only it weren't nearly $14.

My dining companion is enjoying his chicken pizza. It's clearly handmade, with a nice blister to the crust and only a small amount of sog in the middle despite the plethora of toppings: diced chicken, oily kasseri cheese, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and a vigorous dash of powdered oregano.

Over the pizza, my friend begins wistfully recounting tales of how he used to get "Greek toast" from roadside stands when he was living in Greece. They were filled with the same kasseri cheese and marinara sauce, like a pizza panini. Since Byzantio had its own version of the Greek toast on the menu, I file it away to order in the future.

We're still missing our appetizer, however. I saw it make the rounds in the crowded room earlier, a waiter (not our own) clearly confused about the pita and dip platter's final destination, but I didn't say anything. We had let our waitress know when she brought our entrées out, and she apologized profusely — probably more than was necessary. They are clearly in the weeds this night, and her concern is endearing. She brings a fresh plate a few minutes later, saying, "I had them make you a new one. Your original plate had been sitting back there, getting cold." Now I appreciate her even more.

But although the dip plate is very good — garlicky hummus and thick (albeit not spicy) tirokafeteri dip with the serrano peppers perhaps missing, presented with more pita bread than we ever could have used — the service at Byzantio concerns me. If it wants to be a restaurant, it needs to staff up on busy nights. But if all it wants is to be a bar that serves good Greek food, I'm willing to give it a lot more leeway.
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I get the feeling that Byzantio really prefers to be the latter. On its Web site, its mission statement is: "Houston's trendiest spot for a lite bite, cup of coffee or a cocktail." Not: "Houston's trendiest Greek restaurant," or some other such assertion. They don't seem to mind here if you want to linger at a table for hours, or only order a cup of coffee or two.

As it stands right now — and as it has stood for nearly a decade — Byzantio is a friendly, neighborhood spot where you can accomplish many things at once, food being just one of those accomplishments. Coming to Byzantio feels a bit like coming home. And that might be because the house itself used to be occupied by owners Dora Manolopoulos and Ilias Gianna­kopoulos, who redeveloped it as a Greek bar and cafe in 2004, adding its full kitchen a few years later.

Manolopoulos and Giannakopoulos are still constant fixtures in the place, which is staffed by equal amounts family members and chatty, non-blood-related bartenders, but the entire place still feels like a family get-together much of the time, especially when Giannakopoulos grills outside on the weekends. On a recent weekday lunch, Manolopoulos's niece Eleni was manning the place mostly alone, yet the service never suffered (it shouldn't have, as I was the only customer) and was as friendly as ever.

Eleni recommended the gyro sliders to go along with my Byzantio combo plate. At $11, it was a little pricy for a mezze platter that was half vegetables — sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, pepperoncinis and olives — but the outstanding meatballs and soft, tart dolmades made up for it. I stacked the tomatoes and feta cheese into little sandwiches, ate the kasseri with bites of meatball dipped in tzatziki and marveled at what an ideal hot-weather dish it was as I sat on Byzantio's broad front porch in the sunshine.

When they arrived, I chuckled warily at the gyro sliders, a mishmash of concepts and ingredients that didn't look as if it could possibly work. The sliders were served on that same tough French bread, gyro meat topped with feta cheese, tomatoes and — rather strangely — large leaves of basil. Mayonnaise coated one side of the bread, and a ramekin of balsamic vinaigrette sat in the middle of all three sliders. I contemplated it for a moment, then decided to use it in the au jus style, dipping the tough bread into the dressing to soften it up a bit.

It worked remarkably well, this gyro/caprese salad hybrid. I ate every last slider, odd slices of French bread and all. When I paid my bill, Eleni told me that I had to try the Greek toast next time. She'd been right about the sliders, after all.
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Another lunch visit to Byzantio, another quiet afternoon. Eleni was gone this time, another waitress in her place, one who didn't seem to care quite as much as the previous waitstaff. She brought me more of those skinny french fries instead of potato salad, but I didn't really mind. I finally had that Greek toast.

On the menu, it's advertised as served on grilled English muffin bread. I don't know if that means actual English muffins, or bread that tastes like English muffins. Either way, my Greek toast was on wheat bread. And with only the thinnest possible layer of sharp, sheep's milk kasseri cheese inside, it was a huge letdown. I ate the middle out of it in despair, coveting my coworker's fluffy pita.

Tucked inside her Byzantio special pita was an entire Greek salad, another concept I wouldn't have thought would work well. But it did. Crunchy lettuce and cucumbers, salty feta and olives, tangy balsamic dressing, nose-clearing strips of white onions. It's her standby at Byzantio, she told me.

"I wish I'd ordered that," I told her. I consoled myself with the platter of spanakopita we'd ordered, which had finally cooled off enough to be consumed in shamelessly large, wolfing bites. I envisioned ordering these again with a few bottles of Mythos beer on a night out on the patio.

On Thursday evenings, there's belly dancing here starting at 10:30 p.m. But it's Friday nights, with the $10 hookah specials, that will undoubtedly reel me back in. I'll enjoy this place best when I don't have anywhere to be the next morning. I won't have to worry about how quickly my food comes out or if the appetizers arrive after the entrées. Instead, I'll be smoking shisha in comfortable surroundings with friends. After all, double apple shisha would taste great with those spanakopita.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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