With the 2004 Olympic Summer Games in Athens just a few weeks (and an unfinished venue or two) away, I find myself thinking about Greek food. You’ll recall that at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, most of the venues featured overpriced hamburgers, Coke and Budweiser. You’d think the Olympics would warrant a bit more creativity in the food department; I wonder if at the Athens Olympics spectators will be limited solely to souvlaki and gyros? I don’t know the IOC’s position on Greek fare for the Summer Olympics, but one thing is certain: Looking out over the landscape of Greek cuisine in our area, you’d think that thousands of years of Greek culinary history boiled down to fast food.
Until Aristo’s opened last year in the space on 1300 East that was previously Brumby’s and then Karen Jane’s, Greek restaurants along the Wasatch front offered customers almost exclusively gyro and souvlaki sandwiches, with occasional dolmathes, lemon rice and baklava thrown in to round out their menus. This would be akin to eating in Chinese restaurants that only sold fried rice or German restaurants that offered nothing but bratwurst.
Thankfully one local restaurateur—Aristo’s owner Aristides Boutsikakis—is brave enough to give Salt Lake City diners a glimpse of what Greeks really eat, which is more than just souvlaki and gyros. (I’ve recently heard good things from trusted sources about a second Greek restaurant, Bistro Ganache, serving authentic Greek cuisine in our area. Stay tuned for more on that one.) In particular, Aristo’s offers an extensive range of “meze,” what cookbook author and Greek culinary expert Diane Kochilas calls, “teasers.”
There is no small amount of debate amongst Greek food enthusiasts over the difference between “meze” or “mezethes” and “orektika.” I don’t want to get into the niggling details here, but “orektika” are essentially appetizers in Greek cuisine, small courses meant to be served prior to entrees; “meze” or “mezethes” refer to Greek finger foods—not too different from Spanish tapas—which are meant to accompany wines, ouzo and other liqueurs like “tsipouro.”
As with tapas in Spain, in Greece that there’s a social element to eating “mezethes”—or so I’m told by resident Greek culinary guru John Saltas. Diane Kochilas concurs and puts it this way: “The main reason for being around the ‘meze’ table is to talk, to share thoughts with a few friends over a glass or two of wine or liqueur and something to eat.” Sharing “mezethes” or Greek specialties like “pastitsio” and “stifado” with friends is an especially inviting prospect this time of year on Aristo’s sun-drenched sidewalk patio. It might not have quite the appeal of the quaint seaside eatery in Crete that Saltas keeps reminding me about, but it ain’t bad.
Neither is the food, which has improved steadily since I first visited Aristo’s when it opened about a year ago. The service has always been good, and if you’re lucky enough to be attended to by a knowledgeable and gregarious server like Miles, he’ll help you navigate the sometimes complicated Aristo’s menu. I’m forever indebted to Miles for warning me about the pine resin-infused Greek wine called Retsina, which I had confused with an enjoyable white wine I once had from Nemea. A love of Retsina is, as they say, an acquired taste (see Grapevine).
There are some 16 “mezethes” choices on Aristo’s menu and, like the Greeks, you can make a meal just out of “meze.” But buyers beware: Prices on the Aristo’s menu sometimes seem arbitrary, so be careful how and what you order. For example, the “orektika” sampler assortment of Greek dips—served with stuffed grape leaves (dolmathes), feta cheese, pita and a smattering of olives—sells for a whopping $15.95. That seems extravagant for fishy-tasting carp roe dip (“taramasalata”), hummus, the baked eggplant dip called “melizanosalata,” and “scordalia,” which is a dip made from lots and lots of garlic and potatoes. I’m pretty sure the stuffed grape leaves came from a can. Not that the “orektika” wasn’t interesting; it would just be a lot more appealing at say, $7.95.
On the other hand, the savory seasoned Greek meatballs called “keftethes” seem like a steal on Aristo’s “meze” menu at $5.95. And I’ve had Aristo’s “marides” ($6.95) twice now. The first time, the battered and deep-fried smelts—accompanied simply with wedges of lemon—were soggy and unappealing, obviously cooked in oil that hadn’t reached a sufficiently high temperature. But I tried the “marides” a second time and they were perfect: scrumptious crunchy whole smelts that tasted exceptional with just a hint of salt, a squeeze of lemon and a sip of cold beer. I could just imagine sitting in a seaside Grecian bar eating “marides” by the bushel.
Yes, Aristo’s serves gyros and souvlaki. In fact, the rotisserie-roasted beef and lamb gyros ($7.95) at Aristo’s are the best I’ve tasted in Utah. I also like the pork souvlaki, grilled chunks of lean pork marinated in olive oil and Greek spices such as oregano. A single souvlaki skewer with soup or salad (the lemony chicken-rice soup is superb), a side of rice and a pita is a bargain at $8.95. But also give Aristo’s Greek specialties like “pastitsio” ($8.95) a try. Even kids will love the layered Greek “lasagna” made with macaroni, ground beef, and topped with a rich bÃ©chamel.
A new addition to the Aristo’s menu called “yemista” ($8.95) was also delicious. It’s two large green bell peppers, stuffed with minty rice and zucchini, then roasted and served with a traditional white “tzatziki.” A piece of heavenly baklava ($2.25) for dessert, made by Aristides Boutsikakis mother, might just transport you to the land of the Olympians. It’s that good.
ARISTO’S GREEK RESTAURANT AND CAFÃ‰, 224 S. 1300 East, 581-0888, Open Monday through Saturday, for lunch and dinner