The problem with most Greek restaurants is lettuce. If there’s lettuce in your Greek salad, it’s a sure sign the restaurant practices some spurious style of Mediterranean cooking. I have seen otherwise sane, relatively placid people become incensed, red-faced and spluttering at the sight of slices of iceberg in their Greek salad. Fortunately for them, and anyone who appreciates the unadorned simplicity of the best Greek food, the Greek salad at Volos is unsullied by leaf vegetables of any kind.
The version served here is called horiatiki, the “rustic” salad on which all versions are based, and it’s outstanding. Popping-fresh heirloom cherry and cluster tomatoes, at once sweet and acidic, mingle with all of their traditional compatriots (cucumber, red onion, bell peppers, kalamata olives and feta) and have their flavours blended together with a slick lashing of spicy, organic Cretan olive oil. Presented in a pretty white dish, it’s as good a Greek salad as I’ve had in this country and it bodes very well for the meal to come.
Up until a few months ago, Volos was Mediterra, the pleasant if somewhat nondescript seafood restaurant from Bob Antoniou, the restaurateur behind Little Anthony’s. When Antoniou closed Mediterra, he handed the keys to his son, Andreas, who undertook a major redesign of both the space and the concept. The younger Antoniou brought in designer Marc Kyriacou (Spoke Club, Brant House, Maro) to give the space a fresh, bright look. Gone are the heavy pastels and spongy ochres, replaced with a white stucco-textured walls surrounding grey seating. Green glass fishing buoys hang in nets from the ceiling (less tacky than it sounds), gold frames sit in arched recesses, and giant amphorae stand sentry in the corners.
The open kitchen is still presided over by former Mediterra chef Reza Parsia, but he’s collaborated with New York-based author, critic and chef Diane Kochilas on a menu of authentic, modern Greek dishes. Highlights of their fruitful partnership include a quartet of Lincoln Log-sized batons of sesame-crusted feta cheese, stacked beside a small pond of orange-syrup-spiked honey. There’s nothing fancy about those cheesy little morsels, but there’s beauty in the way the briny feta trades flavours with the toasty sesame seeds, while the honey provides a sweet backdrop.
Riffing on similar themes, grilled Moroccan octopus, a paragon of tenderness, combines subtle submarine flavour with the earthiness of melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant puree with garlic and parsley) and the sweetness of a sticky fig-balsamic reduction.
Such pure and well-balanced flavours make wine pairing a breeze. Don’t be put off by the all-Greek wine list. There isn’t a retsina among the bunch. Instead, try something like the crisp, fresh blend of sauvignon blanc and vilana (a delicate varietal mainly grown in Crete). There is also an excellent rosé made from the xinomavro grape that tastes compellingly of both berries and meat. It makes a great match for the whole grilled branzino with its tender, flaking and herb-lashed flesh.
If you’re having the exohico (phyllo pastry stuffed with lamb) as a main course – an excellent choice, by the way – let the sommelier guide you to something a little more robust, like the sturdy syrah/kotsifali blend from Crete. The spicy richness of the wine works with both the ultra savoury, saucy shreds of braised lamb and the creaminess of the lemon sauce that dresses the shattering phyllo.
Not all of the dishes maintain the standards of the menu’s best offerings, though. While the oregano-infused tomato sauce that accompanies the spetsofai (peppers and sausage) is bright and zesty, the sausages are a bit dense and overcooked. A beautifully grilled filet of wild Pacific salmon, soft and glistening in its pink centre, is well seasoned, but its accompanying spanakorizo (a sort of Greek risotto with spinach) is a little loose and flat tasting. The sides also fail to live up to the beautifully browned and crisp-skinned honey-glazed Cornish hen. The feta mashed potatoes are kind of wet and don’t taste much of feta, while the orange spinach lacks vibrancy, hidden as it is beneath the bird.
Desserts like dense, almost hard chocolate mousse (served, sadly, in a martini glass) and the plain bowl of berries with some thick, slightly sour yogurt and honey are easily forgotten, but the saffron and walnut ice cream is a stunner. Rather than promoting saffron’s obvious floral component, the combination with the nuts brings out a grassy, almost hay-like character.
Volos is the real deal. At its best, the restaurant offers some of the most exciting Greek cooking in the city. By offering a great selection of affordable, delicious Greek wines, it may also help improve the terrible reputation the region has unfairly suffered since unleashing resin wine on the world. Most importantly, however, with food this fresh and authentic, Volos may be taking us one step closer to making that iceberg-lettuce-laden Greek salad ancient history.
Special to The Globe and Mail