For many Detroiters, Greektown and the New Hellas were synonymous. It was not as tony as Pegasus, as earthy as the International and did not flaunt a parrot as did the Laikon, but we still flocked to the century-old landmark.
It should have been as clear as the Parthenon on the wall that the venerable establishment was experiencing rough times when, three years ago, Gus Anton removed octopus in wine sauce, a multi-generational favorite in our family, from his entrée list. He shuttered the Hellas this winter. Where do we go now for our lamb and rice or broiled sea bass? Next door, of course, to the Cyprus Taverna, which many moussaka mavens have long contended boasted the best Greek kitchen on Monroe Street.
Vassos Avgoustis apprenticed for 24 years in several of Greektown's restaurants, including the Hellas, before he and wife Eleni opened their cozy taverna in 1994. They decorated their well-worn, Greek columned room, which seats 85, with Greek art and photos, as well as well as Red Wings and Detroit memorabilia.
At first glance, their menu looks like the others on the block. But there are a handful of dishes from Cyprus, their island homeland, which does make dining at their taverna somewhat different. For example, while they do offer flaming saganaki ("Opa!"), you can satisfy your longing for cheese with the less incendiary, mild and creamy fried haloumi from Cyprus. Another Cypriot starter of merit is mushrooms in wine and coriander.
Among the more familiar appetizers, that average around $6, are tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber and garlic), taramosalata (fish-roe spread), grape leaves and Kalamata olives. You can sample these items and others in hot or cold antipasto platters ($14.95) that can easily satisfy four people. While there's nothing wrong with most of the appetizers, the garlic has been toned way down for American tastes in the tzatziki and skordalia (cold mashed potatoes with garlic).
Moreover, the unseasoned beets, which surround a substantial portion of skordalia, come from a can. On the other hand, the tender marinated bits of cold octopus are bathed in a winey sauce with a good deal of character. Alas, like Gus his former neighbor, Vassos also dropped the octopus entrée from his daily bill of fare, in good measure because not many people, aside from members of our family, were ordering it.
His culinary understatement carries over to the smooth house retsina, whose turpentine-like quality is surprisingly subdued. Among the other Greek wines ($24-$30) are several from Cyprus.
Naturally, when in Greektown, you should order a salad, but instead of the taverna's satisfying if misnamed "Classic" Greek, opt for the horiatiki with feta, cucumbers, olives, peppers and tomatoes (if they are no longer toxic). The horiatiki, which is boldly green-free, is the classic salad of Greece.
Although it is inexplicably not on the menu, lamb riganato ($17.95), the best-selling signature dish, is announced as a "special" virtually every day. Marinated for several hours, this subtly seasoned hunk of meat is wonderfully tender and flavorful.
The grilled lamb chops (3 for $19.95) easily pass muster, as do the traditional lamb platters that come with a variety of vegetables and starches ($12.95). But since you will receive a come-with plate of quite-distant-from-al-dente peas along with rice slathered with tomato sauce, it would be redundant to order lamb with peas or rice.
Other keepers are the huge serving of moist roast chicken and the dense, albeit underseasoned again, Greek meatballs. These dishes, along with kebabs, steak, ribs and gyros can be assembled in a variety of combination platters. In addition, the Cyprus Taverna features the usual suspects from the sea such as broiled sea bass and red snapper along with a neat arrangement of shrimp sautéed with lemon and garlic and covered with kasseri cheese.
Vegetarians will be attracted to the huge "Greek trio" composed of spinach pie, moussaka and pastitsio (macaroni with tomato and béchamel sauce) reasonably priced at $12.95, but be sure to specify vegetarian because they also come stuffed with meat.
Eleni's sweet and gooey Cyprus pineapple cake is the best and most expensive ($5.95) item on the dessert list, which also features baklava, rice pudding and crème caramel.
Greektown looks like a mess now with half-completed casino construction projects and the removal of a good deal of street-side parking. You can, however, use the vast new casino parking structure just down the block, a dramatic improvement over the dingy city lot that once occupied the same space.
The Greek restaurants on Monroe have not been doing as well as they had been during the pre-casino era. Moreover, Vassos and Eleni are missing the overflow they usually picked up from their supremely busy neighbor. That is a shame, because the Cyprus Taverna continues to turn out a wide variety of hearty Greek and Cypriot cuisine — even without octopus in wine sauce — in the heart of what still is Detroit's most colorful and vibrant entertainment district.
Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to [email protected]