On the nature of things

Two Greek perspectives on traditional food
By BRIAN DUFF  |  April 23, 2008

Acropolis | 795 Forest Ave, Portland | Mon-Thurs 11 am-9 pm; Fri-Sat 11 am-10 pm | MC/Visa/Amex | 207.879.2400

Emilitsa | 547 Congress St, Portland | Mon-Thurs 5-9 pm; Fri-Sat 5-10 pm | MC/Visa/Amex | 207.221.0245
Too often we seek just the wrong thing in the legacy of Greece, looking for something deep, weighty, and purifying, when the lesson of the Hellenic way of life should be just the opposite. As Nietzsche put it: “Oh those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required is to stop courageously at the surface. Those Greeks were superficial — out of profundity.”

We make the same mistake with dinner. These days chefs and eaters alike take themselves awfully seriously. They trumpet the most organic and local ingredients and the most authentic preparations. The self-righteousness grows tiresome and unappetizing. Two Greek restaurants in Portland offer a chance to reconsider the role of the superficial and the profound in dining out.

Emilitsa, a great looking new restaurant on Congress Street, manages to transform these modern food trends with its particular regional emphasis and light touch. The menu does mention that the lamb is free-range and all-natural, and that your fish was flown in fresh from the coast of Greece. But your mind and palate ignore that to linger on the wonderful names of the dishes (latholemono, yemmisti, htenia, garithes). The space — long and narrow between walls of mustard and old brick, broken up by tall wine racks — is elegant but effortlessly so. Tables and chairs are of simple wood. There are pleasant little touches, like the lovely oval of greenish stones inlaid just inside the door. John, the owner, runs the front of the house while his brother cooks in back. He sets a humble and friendly tone that the efficient servers have adopted as well.

The cuisine offers a similarly light and elegant touch. It is hard to imagine serving lamb three ways without the dish taking on a certain heaviness — but Emilitsa managed it the other night. The dish, lovely to look at with its reddish-browns, greens, and beige, announced itself forcefully with an aroma of grilled meats and sugars that was more pleasant than any food I have sniffed in a long time. The meatballs had an earthy, grassy flavor. They were tough-looking but actually tender, and drizzled with a refreshing cucumber-and-yogurt sauce and a puree of parsley, olive oil, and garlic. The tender lamb-chop was an evenly pink medium-rare. It had a mild, beef-like flavor, perhaps thanks to its marinade. Best of all were the flat, tender lamb ribs. The meat had an almost caramel quality, leaving behind a bone that resembled a reed of seasoned wood. As nice were the color and aroma of the crisp red-browned surface of the moist roast pork souvlaki. Its fresh sauce of lemon and olive oil gave the dish a viscous zing. I was sad that my feta-stuffed tomato went missing. Both dishes went terrifically with the earthy, quirky Greek wines available by the glass.

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