Everything appealing about Momos, the three-month-old "ouzaria taverna" on the western fringes of University City, can be found at the bottom of a glass of mead. A strange brew traditionally (or, more accurately, primordially) made by fermenting honey, yeast and water with myriad herbs and spices, mead's heyday came with biblical times and went with early Anglo-Saxon civilization. Whatever business mead's got on the drink menu of a manifestly hip Greek restaurant in St. Louis county might not translate in concept or on paper. But one glance, one gulp, and you get it.
The house's take on mead downright plagiarizes sangria. The most blatantly lifted ingredient is red wine, uncalled for in any mead recipe but the foundation of Spain's signature potent punch. Also incorporating a fermented honey liqueur, cinnamon, allspice, fruit and (according to my taste buds) lavender, Momos' bastardized mead is the brainchild of bartender/partner Maziar Nooran, former bar manager at Clayton tapas joint BARcelona.
All that Greece and mead have in common is that the word "ancient" is commonly used to describe both, but let's never mind that. Nooran's concoction makes for one heck of a drink: brighter and brisker than sangria, not as muddled in texture or flavor, yet still hell-bent on sucker-punching you right off your barstool if you slurp too fast. A pitcher at the bar is a great way to kick off a night at Momos --in fact, one of the grooviest things about this place is that it's the sort of restaurant where you kinda want to ditch your after-dinner plans, settle in and make a night of it.
Awash in melon and azure hues, accented by a working fireplace and an elaborate tile mosaic on the far wall and crowned by a lovely pressed-tin ceiling painted blue, Momos resembles the fairy-tale, movie-set Mediterranean tavern of our collective subconscious. The cozy, one-room establishment boasts a number of seating options: an L-shape bar (deep enough so that there's plenty of room for all those small plates); a row of bar-high chairs and tables (on the frustrating flip side, too small to accommodate a meal for two); a party-size round table inlaid with mosaic; and upholstered, way-straight-backed booth seating near the fireplace. Whether the twinkly lights in the windows are just for the holiday season or not, they work too.
Fellow BARcelona alum Mark Lucas is Momos' chef and another partner. Considering the multiple family ties between BARcelona and Momos, things start to make sense: the city-outskirts locale; the sangria-esque house libation; the tapas-style small plates (although, as much as tapas gets credit for putatively spawning the current small-plates craze, grazing is really how it's done throughout the Mediterranean). Momos crams more than 65 items onto its menu; dishes are helpfully categorized into cold and hot plates (or mezes), spreads and a catchall "gyro, shish kebabs and pasta" grouping. Like that pesky mead, a couple of options can be called Greek only tangentially: an herb-encrusted rare tuna drizzled with a Greek red wine reduction on top, or gravlax (a trademark Swedish morsel) cured spectacularly with ouzo (Greece's favorite anise-flavored aperitif) and ladled with a lemon-dill yogurt sauce (sorta Greek; the Balkan people are thought to have invented yogurt, and they wandered around the Adriatic and Aegean seas, which border Greece).
But again, nitpicking's not the point. Just loosen your belt a notch, order away and enjoy. There's char-grilled octopus -- teeny ones, heads and tentacles intact but viscera extracted, chewy but not rubbery and imparting delicious mollusky flavor. There are dolmades, stuffed grape leaves served at room temperature, wrapped nice and tight with rice and bits of garlic, onions, mint, dill, oregano and dates, draped in a swath of yogurt sauce; the uninitiated may not like them (here or anywhere), but fans should find their herbal flavor and grainy quality delightful. There are "crispy eggplant fries," which are not, as I'd feared, a pedestrian plate of shoestring spuds topped with a sprinkle of curlicued, flash-fried eggplant shavings. These are Vlasic-pickle-size chunks of eggplant cloaked in a hearty, fried-chicken-like breading with not a drop of extra grease inside or out, served with a surprising tomato-sherry sauce. There's spanakopita, warm triangles of phyllo dough that resemble heat-and-eat hors d'oeuvres but that positively ooze (literally and figuratively) essences of spinach, leek and feta.
It gets better. Lima beans have the time of their friggin' underappreciated lives in Momos' marinated giant lima bean salad, a simmered mixture of carrots, celery, onions, lima beans, thyme, and bay leaves, all of it saturated in a mustard red wine vinaigrette. A plate of golf-ball-size meatballs comes doused in marinara, resonating with browned-meat flavor and carrying traces of rosemary, orange and my Aunt Marie's kitchen. The spreads sampler lets you choose generous portions of three dips from the seven on the menu to attack with warm spears of pita, pillowy on the inside and charred just a little bit on the outside. Those spreads are so delicious -- so homemade and satiating -- that we should all be ashamed for ever bragging about the good hummus or fava dip or roasted-eggplant spread we smugly purchased at Whole Foods that's now sitting in some loser plastic container in the fridge back at home.
And then there is the lamb, available on a kebab with leeks and red peppers and or on its own with just a little fig puree to dress it up. Momos' lamb -- usually flown in from New Zealand or Colorado, usually the loin cut -- is succulent and superlative.
Finally there are the desserts, once more making the rounds between the traditional (baklava, layered with walnuts and honey), the hardly traditional (chocolate-mousse cake with ice cream) and the who-cares-more-please, like the baked phyllo drenched in delectable, warm chocolate sauce and topped with a perfect scoop of chocolate ice cream. When I tried that one, I didn't know whether to cuss or cry.
As Nooran makes it, Momos' mead boasts a high alcohol content. So do a number of the varietals he hand-picks for the restaurant's wine list -- an oenophilic escapade through a dozen little-known Portugese, Chilean, Italian and Spanish labels, plus another fifteen or so from the motherland. Greece's winemaking abilities have never been trumpeted stateside -- its best-known export is probably the much-maligned retsina, which is doctored with pine resin and therefore tastes like turpentine (and which you can try at Momos) -- but Nooran, with the help of a few small-batch distributors, presents a fine case for Greek wines here, particularly the cabernets. Nooran's love of wine is infectious; he can tell you each bottle's life story, sells only what he loves to drink, issues generous pours and sets his prices in the refreshingly reasonable $20 to $30 range, with his highest tag topping out at $39. He also keeps an off-menu wine selection atop the bar -- his latest crushes, like an oaky Casablanca Valley primus from Chile's Veramonte estate that he's pretty much giving away at cost.
Strange, then, that Nooran and company don't seem to equally tout their small selection of ouzos, which aren't printed up on any menu or touted much face to face. And the cocktails, named after various Greek gods, disappointingly fall for the overly trendy: sugary choco-tinis, apple-tinis, mojitos and caipirinhas, and chile-infused bloody marys -- cutesy concoctions found at any other hot boîte in town.
Keep the mead flowing, though, and Momos should continue to coast on both its inspiring substance and its effortless style.