Italian beef is filling. It's beef, beef, and bread soaked with beef juice. So, after a late afternoon “snack” at Mr. Beef, we had to push back dinner by an hour and a half just to finish digesting. That, and to give us a little more time on Michigan Avenue, since the next day, we'd be off to Wisconsin.
Dinner was at Greek Islands, a fairly large, well-known Greek restaurant in Chicago. I put Greek food on the dining itinerary the day I decided that my vacation would include Chicago. Schedules changed, priorities shifted, reservations got cancelled (I made a reservation at Charlie Trotter's the day I booked my flight, but eventually decided to postpone that one for a future, longer trip), but Greek food remained a part of the plan the whole time. I love Greek food, and though there are a few decent Greek restaurants in LA, we don't have an entire corner of the city dedicated to spanakopita, keftedes, tzatziki, moussaka, and flaming saganaki like Chicago's Greektown. And that's just the stuff I know about. Who knows what awesome authentic Greek stuff has been hiding from me?!?
Greek Islands is a large restaurant, with a dedicated bar area and smaller dining rooms. The decor is typical bright blue and white that mimic the flag, with nautical-themed knick knacks – small wooden sailboats on shelves, oars and bouys tacked to the walls, and fishing nets hung over doorways between adjoining dining rooms. If you didn’t get it from the name, you’d definitely get it from the decor – Greek. Sea, ships, sailing. Islands. The atmosphere is lively, but in a sort of muted, dimly lit way - like a fun date. Following our host through the slightly sunken main dining room and up a step to our table on the raised platform around the perimeter, I noticed that there were a lot of "dates." Not that I notice these things, but I do ;)
Instead of pita bread, Greek Islands serves regular bread covered with sesame seeds on the table. I love soft, slightly chewy pita bread, so that was a little disappointing, as were the pats of butter wrapped in gold foil. Does that sound a tiny bit food snobby? Foil-wrapped pats of butter come with their partners, individually packaged plastic peel-back Smuckers grape jelly in greasy diners. LOL! None of it mattered anyway because the bread was a bit dry, so I left it in the basket to focus my attention on the menu.
The menu is lengthy, and seemed a bit overwhelming at first glance, but it is well-organized into almost two dozen appetizers, a list of soups for every day, an equal number salads, all the traditional Greek dishes, meats from the grill, and an entire page dedicated to a generous offering of seafood: snapper, sea bass, a variety of other fish, shrimp and more octopus than I'd ever want to get tangled up with. Yikes! Bakalao, which I know as salted, dried cod, looked the most interesting to me, especially since the menu said it was fried and served with skordalia. If I had my Post-it Minis with me, I would have tagged the bakalao, while reviewing some other possibilities. What I really wanted to do was have a one- to two-bite taste of every single thing on the menu except the octopus. Though they come close by offering half orders of many of the traditional Greek dishes that can be made into your own personalized combination, ordering half-orders of everything still would have been...one hell of a buffet platter.
The one thing I knew that I had to order for sure was taramosalata, which I had never tried before. Normally, I don't go out of my way for fish eggs in any form, luxury Russian caviar, tobiko at the sushi bar, or otherwise. For some reason, though, when I had first heard about this Greek spread made with potatoes, garlic and cod roe, I told myself I had to try it. I'm not sure why, though I suspect that utterances of "fattening" and "salty" when it was being described to me has something to do with it. We ordered the cold spread sampler that also included two other spreads, just in case taramosalata turned out to be a little too fishy eggy.
It was not too fish eggy at all. The taramosalata was delicious, as were both the melitzanosalata, a puree of roasted eggplant and garlic that was similar to baba ghanouj and tirokafteri, whipped feta cheese blended with roasted red peppers. The spreads were at once creamy and chunky, and all of them reeked of garlic in the best way possible. I would have liked to have had pita bread with the spreads, but none was offered, so we had to use the sesame seeded bread. Though the intention was to try taramosalata, my favorite ended up being the tirokafteri and after a few civilized bites with the bread, I gave in and just scooped up the spreads with my spoon and ate them like they were chili.
Our traditional Greek salad was nothing special, just a nice way to eat a giant chunk of feta cheese without looking like a total weirdo for ordering just a giant chunk of feta cheese. LOL! I wanted to try the psarosoupa, described on the menu as a seafood gumbo made with snapper and grouper, but when I tried to order it, our server shook his head with an "unh, unh, unh" and pointed to the fine print on the menu that I had missed. Drat! The various soups are only offered on certain days, except the avgolemono, served every day. A Citron/soda from the bar and a glass of Greek white
wine were stronger than I thought. We settled for avgolemono, a traditional Greek soup made of eggs, lemon, and rice. It was slightly tangy, with a thick, creamy texture likely from the eggs and the starch in the rice. I forgot about the psarasoupa and made a note to myself to make avgolemono at home.
In the end, we made it easy on ourselves and ordered Greek Islands' own combination plate that has roast leg of lamb, mousaka, dolmades, vegetables, and potatoes. Yes, yes, I know. Lamb. I don't love lamb. But the delicious surprise of taramosalata and avgolemono made me giddy and what can I say? Cocktails and wine had must have made my tastes loose. The lamb didn't taste much like lamb, which is probably why I could have eaten more than one bite, except that the meat was slightly dry.
Greek Islands' moussaka was something I was very interested in tasting. I made the baked eggplant, potato and meat sauce casserole once at home for a Greek-themed dinner party. My moussaka certainly tasted good to me (though a little strangely cinnamon-y), but I didn't have a sense of whether it tasted like real moussaka since my only benchmark was moussaka I had tried in a restaurant only once before. The piece of moussaka on the combination plate was a fairly large piece, deep with spiced ground meat between two thin layers of sliced potatoes and eggplant that had baked down so soft that the whole thing was practically melting together. The layer of bechamel sauce on top looked like ivory velvet, but was a little too thick for my taste. It wasn't difficult to eat the best part of the moussaka around it. And yes, after tasting this one, it made me happy to know that this little korean can do greek. :)
The mildly sweet tomato sauce that covered the meatball was something I would have ordered as a sauce to pour over the slices of leg of lamb, vegetables, and oven-roasted potatoes. But the meatball itself was nothing special. The dolmade, however, was special. I have had stuffed grape leaves before, but though each time I have been disappointed, still I try them. I just wasn't sure if all the dolmades I had tried before hadn't been made well and I had yet to find a good one, or if dolmades were just one of those things...like octopus and lamb, that I don't love. I loved the dolmade at Greek Islands. The grape leaves were tender, unlike some that I've had before that were tough and had the large, fibrous central vein left inteact to floss my teeth. My previous experiences with dolmades often left me puckering because fillings made with only rice and pine nuts had too much lemon juice. The filling in these dolmades was richer, with seasoned ground meat and rice. It certainly helped that the little roll was drenched in creamy bechamel. The sauce tasted fantastic on the dolmades, but hadn't worked for me on the moussaka. Go figure.
I've never had anything but baklava for dessert after a Greek meal, mostly because I didn't know of anything else. Greek Islands had quite a few listed, from cakes like chocolate layered sokolatina and spicy karidopita, to a special creation that sounded like a Greek-ified version of Italian tiramisu. Some of them sounded like breakfast, since I'd never think to have homemade yogurt drizzled with walnuts and honey for dessert, some of them sounded ho-hum like ice cream (though that's not all that different from yogurt, right?) and some of them didn't appeal to me at all, like creme caramel. I asked the server what his favorite was and he said St. John's Commandaria. It wasn't on the dessert menu but I already knew what it was - I had tried this sweet dessert wine from Cyprus for the first time back in LA at the Hungry Cat. Had it been a regular mid-week meal out, I would have passed on both the dessert and the Commandaria, but this is vacation. Bring me the Commandaria! It was dark, sticky, syrupy, and tasted sweeter than I remembered it. Then again, that might have just been in comparison to the ouzo. :)
Greek Islands was a perfect delicious ending to my Chicago food mission. St. John Commandaria and a shot of ouzo were a perfect beginning to a still very young night.
200 South Halsted
Chicago, IL 60661