Maybe the food at Yia-Yia's is just like someone's grandmother used to make, but, meanwhile, she's obviously hired a decorator.
Yia-Yia's (Greek for "Grandma's") is a recent emigrant from Kansas City that has 'em lining up in Chesterfield for an eclectic mix of updated Mediterranean cuisines. It looks as if it holds upward of 200 people, but the winding path of broken-tile mosaic floors and irregular dispersion of tables somehow lessens the fact that so many people are sharing your mealtime with you.
The color palette is a mixture of tans and golds highlighted by wood tones, with highlights ranging from stone-tiled pillars to beamed ceilings to unusual stained-glass lamps. It's the kind of restaurant interior that's worth fully taking in before you settle down to the primary fun of eating and drinking.
The attention to detail in design of the place also seems to have rubbed off on its attitude toward service. We were impressed by numerous nice table-side touches -- for example, when the complimentary bread was brought out at the beginning of the meal, we certainly expected olive oil in which to dip it. The extra step at Yia-Yia's was the waitress' conversion of the oil into zutar, a nutty-spicy mixture of flavors owing to the addition of salt, pepper, cumin, sesame seeds and cilantro.
Another extra-mile feature of service was illustrated in the pouring of by-the-glass drinks. Rather than simply bringing you an anonymous prefilled glass from the bar area, your server shows up with the bottle and pours it. In addition to a reasonably long list of bottled wines, no fewer than 30 are available by the oversized glass, at prices ranging from $5.25-$12. What's more, there are a couple dozen single-malt scotches and a dozen tequilas, not to mention a long list of beers, cognac, grappa and specialty drinks.
On the food front, I found Yia-Yia's always competent and sometimes marvelous, although the menu leaned a bit toward the expensive side, with entrees averaging in the high teens. If this is beyond your budget, there's also a short selection of pastas and oak-fired-oven pizzas.
In general, portions are huge and presentations elaborate, as we found with our appetizers of fried calamari, rock shrimp and scallops ($7.95) and crab-risotto cakes ($9.95). In size and texture, the risotto cakes reminded me of potato pancakes. They sat alongside a bed of watercress and red cabbage that could have served as a small salad in and of itself and were flavored with colorful squiggles of tomato-rich curry. The crab kicked in some of its flavor and texture, but it was more of an enhancement than a dominant ingredient. The fried seafood featured a very light breading and was most notable for its sheer volume, which we plowed through while dipping it in the accompanying aoili, a garlic mayonnaise that in this case included a tangible dose of herbs.
For entrees, we chose the salmon filet ($16.95) and the sherried lamb shanks ($19.95). The salmon was well-cooked and offered a very interesting interplay of flavors from the side dish of a mildly tangy goat-cheese potato cake and the sweet-and-sour, earthy flavors of a garlic-sorrel sauce.
The lamb shank turned out to be a truly memorable preparation, the bulky ankle section first slow-cooked for a lengthy period to tenderize the meat and to impart a sweet flavor from a sherry marinade, then apparently passed across a broiling flame for a slightly crispy skin that was in turn lacquered with a spicy, jamlike tomato coating. With all this flavor in the main dish, the sides of green beans and rough-cut mashed potatoes were an excellent simple counterpoint, the potatoes serving as a gathering point for the thyme-infused juices of the meat (and a fresh thyme sprig in the midst of emphasizing this point).
Yia-Yia's has a signature dish (that even has the restaurant's name signed in cocoa on the underlying plate) of a chocolate souffle, and if you have a huge appetite, you should definitely consider ordering it at the time you place your entree order (which is necessary because of the prep time for souffles).
All in all, Yia-Yia's provides an atmosphere that's at once sophisticated and casual, and the extra-effort service makes you feel just as appreciated as when you used to visit your own grandma and papou.
TIDBITS: While we're on the subject of Mediterranean themes, the well-respected Bryan Carr, formerly of Bryan's on Brentwood, is working toward the opening of a restaurant in that style, called Grenache, in the next couple of months. The restaurant will be adjacent to the branch of the Cheese Place at Washington University West, a.k.a. the old Famous-Barr building that straddles the border between University City and Clayton on Forsyth.
15601 Olive Blvd. (Chesterfield)
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.