Emilitsa: An Indulgence Revisited
Over the years I have gone to Emilitsa—Portland’s only worthwhile Greek restaurant —and have been impressed by the creative cuisine served in its refurbished store front dining room. As such it’s remained a rare beacon along this sparsely gentrified stretch of Congress Street where the have and have not’s co-mingle in detached tolerance.
In the world of trendy cuisine, though, Greek fare doesn’t make headlines. Top Chef Michael Symon once commented, “…America has destroyed Greek cuisine. So many people think it’s heavy, rich and sweet. But if you’ve ever been to Greece you’ll know it’s not that kind of food at all. It’s light, healthy and clean…”
Emilitsa fit’s Symon’s comments to a tee. Owners John and Demos Regas (the latter is the chef) have created a New Age Greek menu that fits into the city’s panoply of worldly dining offerings.
Yet I only go about once a year when I’ve exhausted the other more compelling choices in town and remember that Emilista is this little oasis that remains ignored in my culinary mindset.
Just a few nights prior I went to Five Fifty Five, where I go often, and had a splendid meal. And when I left, walking by Emilista a few doors away, I thought I’ve got to go there soon.
Why don’t I frequent this highly regarded eatery more often?
The food is delicious, and the service is gracious and welcoming. Beyond that the place—for me—has no jushe, or in plain English, no oomph!
Still I returned to the restaurant during this month’s First Friday Art Walk, where Congress Street could have passed as Times Square on New Year’s Eve and the dining room ready for the onslaught.
We were seated at a very nice table for two in the long, narrow room beyond the entryway bar room.
This is a tough room if you suffer from claustrophobia, which I do mildly. A narrow passageway is lined with banquettes and feels cramped. What particularly bothered me was the continual thumping of wait staff walking briskly back and forth between the kitchen and dining areas--a dark passage that was like sitting ringside at a parade without escape. Perhaps it’s a minor gripe, but it’s distracting.
The restaurant finally has a liquor license; heretofore wine only. Don’t ask for a complicated cocktail, though, because they don’t have all the fixings yet.
The menu, however, has items that are pretty dazzling in name and execution--a slice of the Aegean with style and flair.
Prices are steep here--and not just by Portland’s standards. My $15 first course was htenia meh ouzo—day boat scallops sautéed and set in a light ouzo-tomato cream sauce with dodoni feta, which is a true Greek feta, velvety and assertive. The dish was well done—a beautifully creamy sauce brought nuggets of scallops to a refined finish.
My dinner mate’s octopothi tis skaras was grilled Mediterranean octopus ($18)—two little strips—that were surprisingly buttery and soft and moistened with unfiltered extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, a spray of micro-greens and sesame toast.
In the past I’ve ordered Emilitsa’s lamb chops ($32), which are about the best in town--a rack of Australian grass fed baby loin chops. This night I tried tsipou'ra tis skaras --grilled daurade ($33), an Aegean fish staple. This is served as a whole fish, brushed with extra virgin olive oil, garlic and lemon juice and served with sautéed Swiss chard and grilled summer squash and zucchini.
Our waitress expertly boned it at the table and I proceeded to dig in cautiously because there are always stray bones lurking.
My companion had the Maine halibut (psissa, $31) pan-seared in extra virgin olive oil and topped with an incredibly delicious sauce based on stewed red peppers and tomato. This was served with sugar snap peas and a mildly garlicky potato puree.
We had a glass each of a Greek chardonnay, a style of wine far less dry, displaying an overly sweet finish.
The desserts are showy affairs adorned with webs of spun sugar. We sampled the rizagalo ($8), a creamy rice pudding infused with lemon and topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. My baklava ($8) was relentlessly sweet, as this confection is meant to be, but well worth the indulgence.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinions. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com