Hugs were the order of the evening as a harried but smiling chef made her way out of the kitchen several times to greet old friends and personally serve them their favorites -- pastitsio, macaroni-and-cheese all dressed up like an actress at the Academy Awards; moussaka, an eggplant-based casserole; dolmades, piquantly sharp grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice; and, of course, gyro, the quintessentially Greek spiced vertical roast.
Furthering the new trend of phrase-based restaurants like I Love Mr. Sushi, Off the Eaten Path and Once Upon a Vine, the name It's Greek To Me certainly sums up the soul of the restaurant that recently took over the old Donovan's space in Brentwood, featuring carryout, catering and eat-in, with a bar tacked on almost as an appendage. As is evident from a series of framed newspaper articles just inside the door, the restaurant and Hellenic heritage of the owner, Mary Argyros, go way back, to the popular Crystal Cafeteria across the river in Fairview Heights, once run by the owner's parents.
Hence the hugs: From the surnames of the people being introduced at the table in the back corner, it appeared that a portion of the local Greek-descendant community was proudly following their compatriot to her new restaurant.
Tables are set with white oilcloths covered with a triangle of blue fabric, and painted and embossed plates, various photographs and paintings, a shelf full of Greek foodstuff packaging, and even the salt and olive oil on each table provide a level of decor well beyond the spartan.
Greek food is often a bargain to begin with, and the eat-in/carryout nature of this restaurant seems to have created some economies over and above what the 12 tightly spaced tables in the restaurant area would support on its own. Five to 7 bucks will feed you very well, and even with appetizers, two people can easily recline at table with quite a feast for less than $20.
In addition to the staples already mentioned, It's Greek to Me features diner-style hamburger and grilled-chicken sandwiches, along with seasoned pork or chicken shish kebabs called souvlaki, served on a large plate of rice preceded by a dinner salad. We tried the chicken ($6.75), a straightforward dish with tangible but not overpowering oregano as the main discernible spice flavoring six big chunks of breast meat. Our other entree, the dolmades, comprised five slightly longer than finger-sized deep-green leaves in a semisolid creamy lemon butter that lent tartness to balance the bite of the grape leaves.
Interestingly, our appetizers were much more densely flavored than the entrees. A combination of roasted red peppers, Greek olives and feta cheese included rich, concentrated flavors in all three -- a sweetness almost like a jam's in the large skinned peppers, the earthiness of kalamata olives and the salted richness of the sheep's-milk cheese. Even more powerful was the scordalia, potatoes whipped with so much garlic that they might scare off the more timid of palate, let alone the occasional vampire.
The one drawback we noticed came with two separate tables of diners adjacent to us who ordered the pastitsio, only to send it back to be more fully heated, indicating that some of the dishes are batch-cooked, refrigerated and reheated. This isn't necessarily a drawback, except in cases like this one, where the final stage is not adequately carried out.
A diamond-shaped piece of flaky, nutty, honeyed baklava ($1.75) made a perfect dessert. No wine list was offered, but several people ordered drinks while we were there, and the waitress mentioned that several more Greek wines were expected to arrive shortly.
For cheap, fast, filling and just-a-bit-divergent-from-normal dining choices, It's Greek to Me is a classical choice.
IT'S GREEK TO ME
9029 Manchester (Brentwood)
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.,
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri., 5:30-9 p.m. Sat.