In America, most Greek food has an unremarkable consistency--a few iconic ingredients (lamb, legumes, parsley), predictably prepared. A little olive oil, a little garlic--tasty, but unsurprising. After all, just how creative can you get with chick peas?
At Eleni's Philoxenia, the new restaurant in the much-loved Cafe Azul's Pearl District spot, that's not a rhetorical question. Here there's much, much more to Greek food than garlicky grout. The menu offers many favorite Cretan dishes and preparations from the owner's successful Sellwood restaurant, Eleni's Estiatorio, which opened in 2000. At the new restaurant, diners can expect an even more extensive menu, with a fresh bit of downtown flourish--graceful garnishes, stylish plating.
A classic introduction to chef Eleni Touhouliotis' food is the feta me filo ($7), a cheese-filled packet of house-made filo dough doused in ouzo, then baked and drizzled with honey. Its barely crisp edges yield to a chewy inside, the salty-sweet seasoning and dusting of chopped chives on top keeping it from verging into dessert territory. You'll find calamari among the starters as well, either grilled (schara kalamari, $8) or pan-fried (kalamarakia, $8). Both arrive steaming hot from the pan and impressively tender, the schara kalamari mixing the squid with granules of crisp-fried minced garlic and accompanying it with a lemony herb salad.
Traditional dishes are re-envisioned and revived here. Tzatziki ($6), often little more than a few chips of cucumber wallowing in runny yogurt, is presented as a thick, garlic-infused spread piled atop elegant ribbons of peeled cucumber. The moussaka entree, a recent special, transcends its reputation as Greek lasagna by mingling ground beef, shredded lamb, tomatoes, eggplant, aromatic peppers and a thin, tart tomato broth over wilted greens.
Meat hogs the spotlight on many restaurant menus, but Eleni's treats carnal ingredients democratically; beef harmonizes with onion, herbs and tomato sauce in the biftekia meatballs ($8) and lamb is paired with cheese, tomato and pan-broiled broccolini in a filo special entree, while wine-braised Carlton pork is served unceremoniously on toast in the mpekri meze ($8). This evenhanded approach allows the diner to explore new tastes without feeling gluttonous.
The back page of the menu is devoted to pasta dishes, but it seems senseless to fill up on noodles when there are so many other fragrant dishes that cut right to the chase. If makaronia you must have, try one of the dishes that features fresh and salty Prince Edward Island mussels: Eleni's offers mussels baked with tomatoes, onions and chilies over ziti (zita me midia chania, $15) or with clams, prawns, scallops and fresh vegetables in tomato sauce (linguini tou psara, $16).
A Greek meal ends best in baklava, and Eleni's is certainly the best in Portland. The typical brick of thinly layered filo and chopped nuts is sparked up by the splashy addition of candied orange zest, broken cinnamon bark and a generous sprig of mint ($6). Molten, crunchy and swimming in honey, there's something erotic about a dessert you have to eat this slowly. If you're in a rush, try the ouzo-cinnamon ice cream, served atop a seriously dense chocolate tart ($6).
If you're used to the poorly lit, depressingly furnished, ouzo-splattered variety of Greek restaurant, both Eleni's locations are a treat. Touhouliotis (co-owner along with husband George, who owned the much-missed Portland rock hall Satyricon) originally hails from Chania, Crete--you know, that tiny island off the Greek coast where the Minoan civilization used to hang out. Since emigrating to the United States at age 18, Eleni has been hip-deep in dolmades, working for years at Dimitri's on Burnside (which is owned by her brother-in-law) before opening her first restaurant.
The new downtown spot--the Greek name, by the way, translates as "hospitality"--is freshly dressed up with warm wood and black-and-white draperies, glossy-dark wainscoting and organic Noguchi-like pendant light fixtures. The space feels airy, cosmopolitan and--two words we finally have the opportunity to apply to Greek food--classically elegant.
112 NW 9th Ave., 227-2158 5-10 pm, Tuesday-Thursday; 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Credit cards and checks accepted. $$ Moderate.