I had heard that the reinvention of Nu Restaurant as a contemporary Greek cusina was a very personal, hands-on project for owner Harry Kambolis. But I certainly didn’t believe that the Prada-shoe-wearing socialite was getting said hands dirty every night.
Didn’t I eat crow (or rather, honey-roasted Cornish hen)? Because there he was in his cook’s whites on a busy Saturday night before Christmas, holding down the kitchen pass, plating salads, garnishing hummus and boosting each dish with a final squeeze of lemon.
It wouldn’t take much effort to elevate Vancouver’s homogeneous Greek cuisine above the peasant village standards under which almost every drably blue-and-white decked taverna offers the same cookie-cutter menu of greasy souvlaki, overcooked seafood, rubbery cheese and tired dips. Even the more modern Greek restaurants (I’m thinking specifically of Piato on West Fourth Avenue, which, recently closed, is scouting for a new location) have merely delivered the same old dishes in daintier portions and fancier digs.
Mr. Kambolis has long seemed a prime candidate to lift Greek food to new heights, and not just because of his Aegean ancestry. At his other restaurants, he’s been an early adopter of regional wine and foods (Raincity Grill) and a pioneer of sustainable seafood (C Restaurant).
Six years ago, when he began designing Nu in its colourful round-glassed carousel on the False Creek waterfront, it was supposed to be a Mediterranean restaurant. (Nu is the 13th letter of the Greek alphabet). For whatever reason, he shied away from his heritage and went with the French meaning of the word (naked) instead.
Even with the 2006 enRoute magazine award for best new restaurant in Canada, the casual raw-seafood concept never took off. Now 42 and newly divorced, Mr. Kambolis felt it was time to embrace his roots.
“It’s my impression of what Greek food should be,” he said in a phone interview, explaining that his mother, a lifelong restaurateur, spent two months in the kitchen teaching everyone the basics. Now, he and chef de cuisine Dan Creyke are reinterpreting those classic flavours into unfamiliar guises.
Calamari ($12.50) is presented in two deeply pleasing textures – crispy fried tentacles and plump grilled bodies stuffed with spiced sausage and rice – on a bed of wilted greens, deeply smoky tomato sauce and pungently tart slivers of (very non-traditional) preserved lemon.
Keftedes ($9.50) are lamb meatballs so tender they must have been slowly braised in this dish’s exquisitely balanced tomato sauce, which is sprinkled with fresh mint and inventively dotted with dehydrated black olives that transcended the ordinary with pickled bursts of crunch.
The menu has a smart seasonal quality about it. The dishes are emphatically seasoned with bright lemon and lots of fresh herbs, but this isn’t summer in Santorini. It’s winter in Vancouver.
Thus, you’ll find Greek salad ($12) artistically deconstructed on long, rectangular plates with fig-infused vinaigrette, Cornish hen ($21) napped in a decadently rich chestnut, date, honey and roast veal bone reduction and meltingly tender, slow-braised lamb shank ($20) doused in a toasted-walnut sauce heavy with clove.
I enjoyed what I ate. But like any labour of love, the new Nu is a work in progress that will take time to find its focus. Take, for instance, the albacore tuna and moussaka. When the restaurant gradually began transitioning to Greek last fall (it never closed for a relaunch), the tuna was served barely seared on a bed of warm chickpeas and green beans, with olive paste and black-pepper jus.
By mid-December, the $22 dish had ditched the chickpeas and olives for short-rib moussaka. It wasn’t a traditional deep-dish moussaka – it was a more of flattened bar with thin slices of al dente eggplant on the bottom and browned béchamel topping sandwiched around a moist meat filling.
I liked the meatiness when I tried it last week, but the tuna was incredibly bland and didn’t add anything to the dish. It seemed to be there for its soft texture more than flavour. When I closed my eyes and chewed, it tasted like a creamy, deep-dish meat moussaka with barely a hint of fish.
Mr. Kambolis must have known the dish wasn’t quite there yet. Because this week – just in time for Dine Out (which was launched early at all the Kambolis Group restaurants), it was changed to a vegetable moussaka with roasted red peppers and saffron lemon sauce.
Although his dishes are boldly seasoned, garlic’s bracing kick is curiously absent. It’s most noticeable in the anemic mashed potato skordalia. Mr. Kambolis confesses that he has purposely spurned garlic’s clichéd clutch, even though his mother disapproves.
For every elegant city slicker of a dish (the thick roast lamb drizzled with a red-wine demi glace, $19), there’s a rustic country bumpkin (baked pastitso, a gooey lamb lasagna, $16).
Then there are all the other crucial aspects that seem to have been overlooked. The new Nu isn’t trying to be a fine-dining restaurant. There are belly dancers for family-style Greek nights on Thursday, and Mr. Kambolis says he wants to sell plates for smashing on the patio come summer.
But the glass hurricane lamps shouldn’t be covered in dust and the carpet littered with lint. There are chips in the paint, burnt out light bulbs and the new white chairs are already looking shabby.
Service is inconsistent. One night, our waitress knows the menu inside out. On another, a sweet young thing drenched in cloyingly sweet vanilla perfume hasn’t got a clue.
And while the wine list may benefit from not having any Greek varietals at all, the selection is slim and several are sold out.
Nu will no doubt become the standard bearer for contemporary Greek in Vancouver – it’s already raised the bar several notches. But Mr. Kambolis may want to poke his nose out of the kitchen from time to time to ensure that the rest of the restaurant rises along with him.