GYRO HERO: The chicken gyro at Espèria is perfectly browned and roasted — an amazing revelation at an unbeatable price.
The Center House of Pizza was a regular neighborhood pizza place for more than 20 years, and then, two years ago, suddenly changed its name to Espèria and put up a sign for rotisserie. It still looks from the outside like a take-out joint, so it was by chance that I wandered in for lunch and found lots of seating and the most amazing chicken gyro I've ever tasted ($7.95/pita; $11.95/dinner with two side dishes and a Greek salad). I came back with reinforcements for supper, and with darkness softening the corners of the room, probed further into what turns out to be a terrific dinner menu at unbeatable prices.
|Espèria Grill & Rotisserie | 344 Washington Street, Brighton | 617.254.8337 | esperiagrill.com | Open Monday–Saturday, 11 am–11 pm | AE, DI, MC, VI | beer and wine | street-level access | small parking lot in front.|
"Gyro" (pronounced yee-row) is anything — classically, lamb or lamb loaf, but chicken is increasingly popular — turned on a spit (like a gyroscope, right Bunky?) and cut off in strips. No matter the meat, its surface should be crisp, so that when the crust is sliced off, what goes into your pita is all burnt ends and caramelized bits, mixed up with feta cheese and a little salad. It's all the more luscious if the pita is the thinner, no-pockets Greek style, but the roasted-crust flavor is the real issue. I've been through yards and yards of soft gyro, shawarma, and döner kebab before happening upon one sufficiently browned and roasted. It was a revelation. The pork version here ($7.95; $11.95) comes pretty close.
The feel at lunch is that of a big sub shop, where they somehow have all this great looking food in glass deli cases. At dinner, we still go up to the counter to order, but one begins to register the space between tables, the pleasant service, those color photos of the Parthenon that always make my mouth water, the lingerability of a real restaurant. The pizzas and the subs are still there, and some are sent out for delivery as we dine. But we are focused on another time and place and flavor — specifically that of baked lamb shanks ($14.95), cooked to falling-off-the-bone tenderness in a tomato sauce. The usual allspice favored by immigrant families from northern Greece and parts of what is now Turkey is absent, perhaps because half of the cook-owner couple comes from the south of the country. Mousaka ($11.95) is made with both potatoes and eggplant, generally subtler than most I've had. You can order mashed potatoes or, better, roast potato slices with it and no one will look at you oddly.
Side dishes are so varied we took two four-way cold appetizer plates ($9.95) to get at them, on top of our dinners. You could also order them individually or as take-out ($4.50/half-pint; $6.50/pint). The picks were falafel balls (incredibly crunchy and delicious), marinated mushrooms, skordalia (the garlic-potato spread here a little refined but with a deep, slow-developing dose of garlic), tzatziki (more intense garlic in a yogurt cheese/cucumber base), and thin strips of grilled eggplant with a dandy herbal flavor. I wasn't as crazy about the hummus (fresh flavor but not enough lemon and garlic), grilled mixed vegetables (underdone carrots), feta spread (too salty), and eggplant salad (salty and greasy, but eggplant lovers won't mind). Hot side dishes with dinner orders include many starch options, of which the pretty spinach rice has a distinctive flavor, and the thoroughly cooked beans in tomato sauce were classic. Mixed roasted vegetables were a fine example of real slow food, albeit stewed and overdone to American tastes.
The soup of the day was lentil ($2.95/cup; $3.95/bowl), refreshingly light with chopped celery and a meaty-tasting broth. Egg-lemon soup ($2.95; $3.95) was sharp yet creamy, one of the best around.
Drinks are the usual sodas and a good assortment of Poland Spring seltzers ($1.95), plus Greek beers and wines. Mythos ($2.50) is a nice, hoppy lager from Thessaloníki, and not at all the kind of thin, best-when-ultra-cold beer I expect from hot climates. Greek coffee and ice Greek coffee "frappes" are also available, the latter the energy drink of the gods. This is serious coffee iced with a foamy head — just the thing for galactobouriko ($2.75), rich custard inside delicate filo, so that the ultra-sweetness was somewhat buffered.
Service here is minimal since you order at the counter. But once you sit, dishes come out rather nicely and servers change roles smoothly. This is a family business that cares about its customers.
I used to joke that at a wine tasting everyone ends up talking about the cheeses, and at a cheese tasting everyone ends up asking about the fruit. Sure enough, when my colleague MC Slim JB and I shared a recent meal, we ended up talking about craft cocktails: the latest form of spirituous connoisseurship.