Finally one local restaurateur family decided to make a go of a full-fledged traditional Greek restaurant. Born in Andritsena, Greece, Tula and Panos Photopoulos immigrated first to Chicago, but later moved to Charlotte with their three sons George, Greg and Frank. In 1986 they opened the French Quarter in the downtown's historic Latta Pavilion.
"For years we've been downtown listening to folks from out of town asking why there isn't a Greek restaurant in Charlotte," said George Photopoulos. In March the Photopoulos family opened Greek Isles, located in an old warehouse on Bland Street. But there is nothing bland about this restaurant.
Former tenants had transformed the space into a dramatic interior with a large open kitchen as center stage. Now the interior sports large Grecian columns and faux windows framing large photographs of the Greek isles, many of which were taken by the Photopoulos family on their biennial visit to Greece.
In the kitchen are Greg Photopoulos, who was a chef at Guytano's, and Tre Spoto, who hails from Tampa. The recipes are a combination of Tula Photopoulos' family recipes and those contributed by a chef from a five-star resort in Crete who spent two months in Charlotte helping the Photopouloses develop the menu.
Ironically the large neon sign "Cooking with Fire" which used to hang above the kitchen was removed a tenant ago. Now servers are actually cooking with fire as they flame the Saganaki appetizer tableside while admiring diners exclaim, "Opa!" This popular appetizer has its share of danger, though, as my newly shorn server explained, noting that his hair used to be much longer.
Greek Isles offers the usual roundup of Mezedes (appetizers), which you can peruse while slathering your bread with a complimentary order of creamy Taramosalata, fish roe spread. Of note are the excellent Tzatziki sauce and the char-grilled octopus. My dining companion shared her tale of watching Greek fisherman tenderize octopus by slamming them up against a building. The cooks at Greek Isles, however, have opted instead to tenderize their octopus with olive oil. The only downside among the appetizers was the Metitzanosalata, an eggplant spread, which needed a hit of smokiness to even out the flavors.
The menu offers pastas, seafood including fresh cod, kabobs, chicken, chops, and steaks, and ranges in price from $9.95 for a vegetarian pasta selection to $29.95 for a veal chop with wild mushroom sauce.
The most appealing section and heart of the menu is Elinika Specialte, or Traditional Specialties. The Taste of Greece is a roundup of all these dishes: moussaka, made here with beef not lamb, a lusciously intense order of pastitsio, a striking spanakopita, perfectly seasoned gyros, and grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice. Another well balanced dish is the hearty Arni Psito with thin tender slices of leg of lamb pot roasted with potatoes and offset with braised, yet firm, Italian flat green beans.
The wine list has several dozen bottles -- mostly Greek, but more California are being added. Greek wine has been stereotyped by retsina, a rustic white wine; however, the country has much more to offer than this. In the recently published Wine Varieties of the Greek Vineyard, author Haroula Spinthiropoulou writes of 199 indigenous Greek grapes. If you are unfamiliar with Greek wine, the servers carry a cheat sheet that will give you a basic description. Gaia, owned by Yiannis Paraskevopoulos who specializes in creating wines from Greek varietals using French winemaking techniques, is represented on the list.
Desserts include many of the standards. We chose the almost too-tart thick yogurt sweetened with honey and chopped walnuts, and a larger than life piece of baklava dripping with syrup and topped with chocolate. Or you can let your mind wander back to your favorite taverna with an ice cold glass of ouzo.
Greek Isles is not designed to be the latest take on classical Greek cuisine, nor are the entrees stylishly plated. Isles fulfills its promise to offer classical Greek cuisine true to its heritage: comforting not decadent.
There are still tickets for a few of the 2004 Wine and Food Weekend events: the Vintner Tasting on Saturday, April 24, at 11am at Symphony Park ($25); the Culinary Experience I with Master of Wine Bob Betz and Chateau Saint Michelle Culinary Director John Sarich on Friday, April 23, at 11am at Piedmont Natural Gas ($65); the Culinary Experience II with Kimball Jones of Wente Family Wines on Saturday, April 24, at 3pm at Piedmont Natural Gas ($65); the Super Tuscan Tasting with Kevin Zraly, Ferdinando Frescobaldi, and Philip di Belardino on Friday, April 23, at 2pm at Ballantyne Resort ($350); the Chateau Cheval Blanc tasting with Kevin Zraly, Saturday, April 24, at 10am at Ballantyne Resort ($400); and Women In Wine Tasting on Saturday, April 24, at 1:30pm at Ballantyne Resort ($125). Tickets to these events may be purchased on the website: www.charlottewineandfood.com.