O Ye of Little Feta!
I'm watching The Sound of Music for the zillionth time, and I'm craving Greek cuisine.
Okay, I know edelweiss are hardly reminiscent of olive trees, even when they're in bloom. And I'm perfectly aware that while the Von Trapp children may sing and dance, they don't end their performances with shots of ouzo and bouts of plate breaking. But when Freulein Maria says, "When God closes a door, He opens a window," I find myself thinking about what's absent from my own life, and how that loss might be redeemed. And into my mind pops the image of Vakhos, the comfy little Greek place in the Gables that recently went out of business, and Mylos, a Greek establishment that promptly sprang up a few blocks away to fill the void.
The new restaurant, whose name translates as "windmill," opened a month ago in the lobby of the Hotel Chateaubleau on Ponce de Leon Boulevard. The space formerly housed a cafeteria, leased out by the Grillas family, French-Canadian Greeks who have owned the Chateaubleau for fifteen years. But after the Grillases renovated the ground floor of the hotel, they decided to upgrade the eats and run the restaurant themselves. Now the 150-seat eatery and psarotaverna (bar) features the most extensive Greek fine-dining menu in Miami.
Boxes of produce and bins of fresh fish resting on ice line the restaurant's tiled entranceway, Mylos's version of the Greek custom of allowing restaurant patrons to troop into the kitchen to view the food. The dining room carries through the countryish theme: flower-pattern tablecloths in shades of aqua and blue; upright chairs painted in different primary colors with woven straw seats; and framed prints of the homeland. On the (Friday) night we visited, the experience was further enhanced by a duo that performed Greek folksongs, to the obvious appreciation of the crowd.
If expansive gestures and loud laughter are anything to judge by, the diners liked more than just the music. And when our pikilia (appetizer platter) was delivered, we could see why. Billed "for two," this sampler of hot starters (a cold pikilia is also offered) served four and could have sufficed for dinner. Deli-thin slices of fried eggplant and zucchini lined the oval tray like doilies, with an abundance of seafood heaped on top: charcoal-grilled jumbo shrimp, sauteed baby squid, salty fried codfish, and the most tender broiled octopus I've had in the U.S. There were meaty treats: thick links of Greek country-style pork sausage, and delicate grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice and topped with a lemon sauce. And a scoop of a deliciously cool and tangy mashed potato salad. Triangles of spinach pie, a little too greasy for our taste, were the sole flaw.
We couldn't resist ordering tzatziki, a sharp yogurt-cucumber dip. We cleaned the plate with wedges of warmed pita bread, which also came in handy for mopping up the remains of an ultra-fresh traditional Greek salad (no lettuce), which comprised chopped cucumbers and onions, quartered tomatoes, and briny olives, topped by a layer of feta cheese. Sprinkled with oregano and olive oil, the pungent feta was a perfect counterpart for the juicy tomatoes and clean-tasting cucumber.
We were glad we'd ordered that salad when the "special salad" touted as a side dish to all the entrees failed to appear. But then, given the prodigious portions, no one was about to go hungry. A Herculean square of moussaka was a fabulous version of the classic dish, an inches-high layering of cinnamon-scented ground beef, sliced eggplant, and mashed potatoes, complemented by a delectable blanket of bechamel sauce. Bright carrots and a broccoli spear -- accents for all the main courses -- were a pretty contrast, though a side of rice was hardly necessary.
Far less successful was the "Poseidon platter," listed under the heading "The Gods' Favorites." Two grilled lamb chops were pink, tender, and savory. But a filet mignon, while mild and supple, was fatty; half a lobster, a minute member of the spiny Florida variety, was served in the shell, with both body and tail present. Unfortunately, the body meat of this clawless species is often considered too strong to eat, which was the case here. The tail had been overcooked, too, causing the flesh to stick to the shell.
A better crustacean selection was garides Mylos, a half-dozen enormous butterflied shrimp. Baked in a casserole in a bubbling stew of chopped tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, scallions, and a touch of melted feta cheese, this dish united many of the Mediterranean flavors we associate with Greece. We liked it so much, in fact, we didn't mind when the spetsiota we had ordered, fish of the day baked with tomatoes, onions, and garlic, turned out to be the identical preparation. "The fish of the day is shrimp," our server announced as he set down the plethora of jumbos. We'd expected the red snapper we glimpsed in the front hallway, but okay. Twist our arms.
Actually, some persuasion was required for us to consume dessert; washed down with a bottle of retsina, this was quite a meal. (The restaurant has no wine list but stocks a variety of typical Greek vintages, each priced at $18. The staff, altogether obliging, is happy to make suggestions.) That pressure came from the house, which bought us a round of sambuca shots to clear the way for a piece of baklava, set in a pool of honey and garnished with grapes and berries. The sambuca was afloat with coffee beans and then lit on fire, a rather startling presentation. After setting down the glasses, the waiter extinguished the flames by pressing a plate against the rims. Better than breaking said plate over our heads -- unless, of course, you count the hangover.
"Poets make the best cooks," Joyce Carol Oates writes in her essay "Food Mysteries." Ron Offen, editor of The Starving Poets' Cookbook, obviously agrees. In his slim paperback volume, Offen has collected recipes and related poems from 30 hungry contributors, who apparently eat better than most of us - or at least appreciate it more. Entries range from Anne Kennedy's "A to Zucchini" to "Revenge Tofu Style" (Alan Catlin) to "The Meaning of Taquitos" (Lola Haskins). You couldn't ask for a more flavorful roundup, even if desserts seem to dominate entrees and instructions are somewhat personalized -- a recipe for a dish called Dragon's Breath "serves two children, one adult, and one child who eats more than others." I'd much rather bake a French chocolate cake from these pages, knowing that "when you split the beautiful single slice . . . you each have the largest piece," than consult a more traditional cookbook, no matter how professional the author. Make a poet out of your cook by sending a ten-dollar check to Free Lunch, P.O. Box 7647, Laguna Niguel,
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