At many local Greek restaurants, one menu is almost identical to the next. Gyros, flaming saganaki, moussaka and stuffed grape leaves, the familiar and perennially popular line-up of savory dishes come up on about every Greek menu in the city. There are exceptions: Taxim was one of the first Greek places that dared to break the mold, tweak tradition and experiment with innovative menu items like duck and fish gyros.
We’d been to Avli Greek restaurant locations in Winnetka, Lincoln Park and River North, and media (that’s me) were recently invited to check out the Chef’s Table.
In earlier visits to Avli locations, I was pleasantly surprised by their saganaki, which at most locations is not set on fire. In Winnetka, and with perhaps a more traditional clientele, the square of cheese in the pan is, indeed, flambéed. In other locations, such as Avli on the Park and Avli in Lincoln Park, the cheese is not set on fire, although it is warmed and dressed with condiments like tomato jam and peppered figs. (Un-flamed saganaki is the way it’s more likely to be served in Greece.) The whole flaming cheese thing began at either the Parthenon or Dianna’s in Chicago’s Greektown, sometime in the 1960s. Being served the cheese-on-fire in 2021 seems retro; that’s probably why newer Greek places have broken new ground.
In another departure from a traditional Greek menu format, Avli on the Park offers a degustation menu, a series of smaller courses, artfully presented. This is the tasting-menu approach taken at Chicago’s best-known fine-dining restaurants like Alinea and Ever, and it’s also the approach that Chef Nikos Kapernaros takes at Avli on the Park.
The bread service at Avli at the Park serves as a reminder that, although you may find a lot of pitas wrapped around gyro meat at Chicago Greek restaurants, bread, just regular bread, is more commonly consumed by native Greeks. “We eat pita,” Kapernaros notes, “only with souvlaki.”
Koulouri, sesame covered bagel-looking rolls, are just wonderful, rusk-like, and crunchy, with pronounced nuttiness; I brought several home, and the next morning, I woke up with one thing on the mind—those crisp little bread donuts—and was devastated to learn that my wife had already eaten them. As I wept uncontrollably, she mentioned that they were incredibly good.
The dishes in Kapernaros’ degustation seem, on the surface, not to be very Greek at all. The amuse-bouche (itself not a common pre-dinner course on the Greek menu) is a pumpkin cube poached in orange juice with blood orange sauce and rose powder. This kind of paradigm-breaking bite is characteristic of many of the dishes served as part of the tasting menu. All the ingredients on this amuse grow on the Greek islands.
There are three other dishes in the tasting menu that exemplify Kapernaros’ approach: Sunset, Autumn and Forest.
Sunset is a composition of red and yellow beets, looking like the sky and clouds around a sunset, with the role of sun played by a timbale of King crab. I don’t believe I’ve ever had King crab in a Greek restaurant, and that’s probably because King crab, or Alaskan King crab, lives in much colder waters than the wine-dark—and warm—Aegean. “In Greece, we eat only the red or blue crab,” says Kapernaros, “but King crab is more elegant, so I improvise. I like to use in my cooking many fruits and legumes—we have a lot of those things in Greece.” One of the more unexpected ingredients in this dish was labeled “wasabi” on the menu. “We don’t have wasabi in Greece,” says Kapernaros, “so I used a root that grows in Greece and like wasabi, it’s very spicy.”
Seafood is (unsurprisingly) huge in the Greek islands, although there are also many Greek restaurants that tend to be meat-heavy (gyros, lamb shank, pork). For all the fish hauled in by Greek fishers, and the 180 Greek fast days when seafood, not meat, is the main protein, one might expect fish to have a more prominent place on Greek menus in the United States. (It’s there, sure, just maybe not as popular as the gyros and lamb shanks).
Served with Sunset is a retsina that changed my mind about that wine: a Pytis Ritinitis Retsina, 2020, from Troupis. We had our first retsina at the Parthenon years ago, but the strong resin flavor of that first sip was nothing like the smoother, lightly citrus acidity and herbaceousness of the Troupis retsina, which pairs beautifully with the crab.
Braised rabbit in Autumn, our favorite dish of the tasting, is moist and meaty, prepared in part as a traditional Greek stifado, a stew that Kapernaros’ grandmother used to make, with lots of white onions, red wine, rosemary, carrots and tomatoes. The stifado in Greece often uses rabbit as the primary protein. This dish includes a ballotine, a roll of herbs and rabbit liver, wrapped in rabbit breast meat boiled in “mountain tea,” another traditional preparation. The dish is dressed in micro-oregano, a familiar Greek spice, and feta, the most familiar Greek cheese. Here, the cheese is cubed and fried, becoming a crouton that adds crunch and creaminess to the preparation. The oil used in this dish is pressed from olives that grew in the Kapernaros’ family grove, a cool personal touch.
In Forest, we have a lamb filet dusted with herb powder, looking like a log which, along with trumpet mushrooms and confit potatoes, as well as amaranth, red basil and mustard microgreens, is carefully assembled to simulate a woodland diorama on the plate. Lamb is the meat most associated with Greek food, and yet in Greece, pork and beef are consumed more often: pork is the primary protein in Greece’s homegrown gyros, and lamb is more for special occasions and celebrations…and degustation menus.
Served with the lamb is a spectacular cabernet, Skouras Saint George Agiorgitiko 2008, a deep, earthy red that is right with the cab, robust flavors standing up to robust flavors.
Greek dishes we’ve had the misfortune to have in the past have seemed dumped on the plate, without much thought as to how it all looks when set before a guest—the stuff is delicious, just not thoughtfully presented. Kapernaros, in line with his efforts to create an elevated Greek dining experience, artfully arranges his plates so that the elements are framed in a larger composition, as good to look at as they are to taste.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org