Lately it seems that everything about Greek food has caught on -- except Greek food itself. Feta cheese and kalamata olives have become part of our everyday culinary vocabulary. At Whole Foods there's an entire bar devoted to olives, and olive oil has become the highly touted health elixir du jour. "Mediterranean" is a buzzword used liberally and inexactly to imply "hot new restaurant." And "small plates" means not just Spanish-style tapas, but grazing, which is how it's done not only in Spain but throughout the Mediterranean. Heck, baklava has even shown up as a dessert at Lampert's Plush Pig, a barbecue joint in downtown Clayton.
But for all the hoopla, there actually haven't been many new Greek restaurants popping up around town. (Quick -- name a Greek place besides Olympia and Momos.) That is, until now, as three new restaurants expand St. Louis' Greek dining options.
The décor at five-month-old Colossus resembles a quick-stop deli more than a full-on restaurant -- right down to the short-order grill that forms a border between the handful of tables and chairs and the kitchen area. But while Colossus' look may not be anything flashy or spectacular, its food bears the distinct tastes and textures of genuine homemade Greek cooking. That may be because Colossus is a family business, with husband-and-wife team Michael and Marietta Potsos heading up a clan that includes their adult children George, Nick and Maria, who technically own the business, and a couple of grandkids helping out. Nearly all of the menu items are made from recipes that date back a couple of generations.
If the names of particular Greek foods are Greek to you -- moussaka, galaktoboureko -- then wending your way through Colossus' menu may prove a bit of a challenge. But you can't go wrong with the starter sampler platter of dips, which includes hummus, tzatziki (a yogurt-and-cucumber dip), red-pepper dip and taramosalata, a whipped cod-roe dip not far off in taste and texture from hummus. The only thing that beleaguered this platter was that, here and there, the dips tasted overly salty. There's also a Greek combo platter available as a main course, which is more than enough for two people (and probably just right for three). It includes a lovely pastitsio (sort of a baked ziti without the tomato sauce), spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese baked into a phyllo-dough crust), moussaka (an eggplant-meat-potato casserole), a single dolmade (rice and ground beef rolled up in a grape leaf), cooked eggplant, spinach rice, and mixed vegetables.
The gyros and souvlaki at Colossus are right-on, with thick-cut, nicely charred pieces of meat that indicate some real care and flair coming from the kitchen. If your knowledge of Greek desserts begins and end with baklava (phyllo dough layered with nuts and honey), then the sweets here deserve some exploring, particularly the kourabiethes -- or Greek wedding cookies, as the staff will sometimes refer to them: crescent-shaped mouthfuls of shortbread (think Lorna Doones, but better) dusted with generous amounts of confectioner's sugar.
The awkwardly named Mediterranean House Apollonia, located in the nether regions of the city (even farther south than the neighborhood nicknamed Southtown) relies on the omnipresent M-word in its title. But with the exception of some bar-food standards like chicken wings, chicken tenders, a couple steaks and a couple burgers -- plus its tzatziki, which comes across as plain sour cream -- what it serves is Greek through and through. Its dolmades (grape leaves rolled around rice and ground beef) are some of the best in town and come topped with a delicious avgolomono (egg and lemon sauce); for those fearful of eating strange Greek delicacies, the dolmades at Apollonia are a good place to start. The spanakopita is also a joy, with a sweet taste and moist texture, like dim sum dumplings. Baklava, which can often be so weighty and blunt that you can practically feel it thudding down in your stomach, is delicate and delightful here, like a French mille-feuille, with just the right amount of honey.
The choices on the menu at Ari's Restaurant & Bar, which opened about ten weeks ago in a houselike structure formerly occupied by Tokens, lean strongly toward the American, or even the St. Louisan: chicken wings, toasted ravioli, potato skins, a chicken Caesar salad, a club sandwich, an "all-American" hamburger, etc. Calamari is a foodstuff that bridges the gap between sports-pub grub and authentic Greek fare, but the disappointing appetizer plate of calamari at Ari's features little Cheerio-size bits of squid, crumbly and very unappealing to look at, and so breaded that oftentimes you can't even taste the meat.
Owner Ari Mehtas and chef Ervin Lekaj both formerly worked at another Greek restaurant in south county, yet a questionable cooking method seems to be at work at Ari's: A dish will be deemed "Greek" just because it has some olives or artichoke hearts thrown on top. An entrée of "chicken pena" can best be described as Hamburger Helper chicken Alfredo, so marred is it by a heavy, overbearing white sauce and melted Provel cheese.
Main courses come sided with rice pilaf, broccoli, and a choice of baked potato, garlic mashed potatoes or "Greek potatoes," which are really just home fries with some sliced black olives tossed in for good measure (and the spuds' flavor still runs rampant over that of the olives). Cod primavera, another combination of Italian (the primavera) and Greek (cod is often used in Greek cuisine) was borderline inedible. The cod was rubbery and had absolutely no flavor, as if it had been frozen for a long, long time before being called up for duty, and the artichoke hearts on top were stiff as cardboard. In fact, the only truly recommendable item at Ari's is a particular brand of imported Greek beer that bears the restaurant's name; it's light with a nicely bittersweet aftertaste.
St. Louis may not be Little Athens just yet, but it's high time Greek cuisine gained a greater presence in this town all the same. Colossus and Apollonia make a great start toward that goal, and two out of three ain't bad.