I have a passion for Greek food. In my rather long and quixotic life, I have traveled the length and breadth of the Greek islands in search of great food, beautiful women, business opportunities and splendid views... and found all from time to time. In the late 50s, one of my client/mentors was a fabulously wealthy Greek businessman, Nicholas Reisini, who purchased the Cinerama wide-screen movie company, which is why I came aboard. I spent much quality time in the taverns of Athens and on his yacht visiting the many islands. One of my mightiest culinary regrets has always been the lack of really good Greek food in Los Angeles. Sure, we have Taverna Tony in Malibu, which is fun. A fine restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Petros, but the drive is a bit daunting. Years ago there was decent place on Third Street, Sofi, entered through a long alley... but I haven't heard of it since the Greek doctor/owner went home. There is Papa Christos in the South Bay, questionable, and George Christy has mentioned a tiny place in the Farmer's Market.
Adam Kariotoglou is the brains and money behind our new Greek sensation.
Now the draught is over and we celebrate the ascension of XANDROS GREEK RESTAURANT (50 N. La Cienega Blvd., just next to Lawry's ½ block up from Wilshire, Beverly Hills (310-854-1001). Thanks to a charming and brilliant Greek businessman named Adam Kariotoglou, we have a palace dedicate to Greek food, Greek dance, Greek... everything. Adam has opened 30 restaurants since 1984, working his way up from age 14 as a busboy and dishwasher to becoming a successful restaurateur in the Seattle area. "But I always wanted to open a really extraordinary place in Los Angeles, where I have been living for the past seven years, and when the exciting space on La Cienaga offered itself, I grabbed the moment," he told me opening night. There have been many restaurants in the space, last being something called Tokyo Table, but Adam has redone it complete, from the smart bar and seating area as you enter to an exhibition kitchen, a smartly appointed dining room with banquettes and booths a large patio for summery dining, and private rooms which -- I suspect -- will be filled with great Greek parties from here on in. Oh, yes!
Don't be surprised when your waitress stops serving to do a short dance.
I asked Adam what the name meant, and he laughingly explains it is short for Alexandros, Greek for Alexander, and his son's name, Xander. (And for Alexander The Greek, the legendary Macedonian emperor who conquered his world.) Adam will conquer this California fairyland in which we live with his superior food. On opening night, certainly an inauspicious one to judge a restaurant, I was so eager to sample its pleasures that I couldn't wait, wanting to get this report out to the world. I am returning next week for two or three more meals before finishing my longer review for Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter, but HuffPost/LA readers can be assured that it is ready for them and their appetites for authentic Greek cuisine.
All Greek meals begin with a selection of mezzes, appetizers. We sampled six of them.
To help him in the kitchen, Adam brought aboard a veteran Greek chef, Dimitris Mavrogiannis, from that Manhattan Beach place; together they fashioned an extensive and interesting menu. I spotted all of the traditional Greek dishes I have treasured over the years, including a few surprises from the islands of Mykonos and Santorini. (Oh, such memories, of the donkeys carrying my party up the mountain to the breathtaking summit, where as the sun set we enjoyed a few bottles of ouzo and a fabulous feast of grilled fish just minutes out of the sea below.)
Dimitri Mavrogiannis is the veteran Greek chef brought aboard to help fashion the menu.
To assist me in my opening night quest, I had enlisted the aid of two strapping young men with prodigious appetites, Blake and Austin Fullmer, and their charming mother, Lisa, with a more discreet appetite. The owners have enlisted the aid of Glen Tinsley, an experienced American chef who has worked extensively in the Mediterranean, to bring a modern touch to the classic recipes. A selection of Mezzes, appetizers, always begins a Greek meal... and we had six such small plates ($5 each). Taramosalata is a mousse-like blend of smoked fish and Greek olive oil with herbs. (Everything will have some Greek olive oil in or around it, and it's a deeply-flavorful oil which I love.) Skordalia is a smooth blend of Yukon Gold potatoes and roasted garlic, lots of garlic...The Stinking Rose across the street now has a competitor for garlicky dishes. My favorite was the Tirokafteri Ipirou, a blend of four Greek cheeses with hot peppers and sun-dried tomatoes. Salads, of course, the Karpouzosalata ($15), local watermelon slices, tomatoes, finished with feta, fresh mint, then drizzled with Greek honey and balsamic vinegar. Interesting.
Yes, lots of interesting salads, including this of watermelon, feta, mint with a honey dressing.
At this point in the meal, the musical trio supplying Zorba-like music stepped up its volume and our waitress, Corinne, suddenly joined her associates on the ledge separating the dining room from the patio... and the girls did a strapping, stimulating Greek dance to the enthusiastic applause of the diners. Operations Manager Thalia Thomas later told me that they had trained their waitresses in Greek dance, and that from Wednesday through Sunday the music and dancing would be non-stop. At which point a belly dancer shimmied up to our table and grabbed Austin to join a conga line of dancers forming in the middle of the floor.
A belly dancer will entertain and often lead a conga line of diners.
I concentrated on the next set of dishes to emerge from the kitchen. Marithes Sto Tigani ($10) was a platter of tiny fried smelts, seasoned with aioli and lemon. Greek Kalamata olives and feta cheese, of curse, rich with oregano ($10). The warm pita bread kept coming from the kitchen, and when it cooled I asked for another... and another. Soutzoukakia ($15), succulent hand-crafted prime beef and lamb meatballs scented with cumin, mint, parsley, and sea salt, served with a tomato sauce and feta cheese. Karavides ($45), four huge prawns from Madagascar, grilled a la plancha just 'til tender, with grilled lemons, served with braised artichokes and lemon-basil spaghettini, one of my favorite dishes of the night.
Giant prawns grilled a la plancha were a special treat this evening.
I wanted a whole grilled fish, and a glistening striped bass was presented, then deftly boned by Dimitri table-side, drizzled with olive oil and lemon, then placed center-table on a bed of saffron rice. Oh, yes, this was the Greece I know. Lots of lamb came out, from a Lamb Shank ($28) to a platter of well-done, deeply flavorful thin-cut Lamb Chops ($28). Surprisingly, my favorite meat dish was not the lamb but the Veal Chop, this morsel not well done, served with mashed potatoes without garlic.
Fried fruit fritters were one delicious dessert.
We were surfeited, but I made a note of some of the things I will order on my next visits... the Spanakpita, the Tirpita (both $9), those flaky, crispy phyllo pastry pies of spinach and cheese. There's Calamari and Zucchini and Eggplant dishes galore. Saganaki ($19) of blessed Thessalonia memory, sautéed cheese flamed with Mextaxa brandy. Moussaka ($20), of course. So much to look forward to.
An unusual rice pudding is another tasty dessert.
We finished our meal with two desserts: Loukoumades ($8), homemade fritters, with brown butter gelato and a trio of fruit syrups, and a surprise: Rizogalo ($8), a Greek rice pudding of warm Arboria rice scented with spices and orange zest, finished with golden raisins and syrup. Interesting, but not to my taste. No Baklava tonight, but coming shortly. I was drinking my love, Ouzo, while the boys and their mother drank bottled water (unfortunately not Fiji, my passion.) I asked my old friend Jeffrey Stivers, General Manager/Sommelier, if he had a bottle of Retsina open, and he brought it for me to see... resin-flavored wine, an acquired taste... but one which I had acquired many years ago and still had.
I'll finish this tale with the few Greek words I've acquired: Kefi, which is joy of the spirit, Meriki, doing something with passion, and Filoxenia, the essence of Greek being... hospitality. All of which you will find at XANDROS, on La Cienega in Bevery Hills. How wonderful!
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