So there I was, eating lunch at The Greek by Anatoli, a new restaurant in the Yaletown warehouse space previously occupied by Good Wolfe. I was admiring the breezy redesign, which brightened the exposed brick walls with a clean coat of white paint and filled in the wood-and-beam ceiling with a canopy of small, stringed lights.
I was enjoying the moussaka, with its comforting layers of sweetly spiced minced beef, creamy béchamel and meltingly soft eggplant moistened by robust tomato sauce, rather than the typical greasy slick. There was a nice salad on the side, crumbled with richly dense, sheep-milk feta. The pita bread was warm and golden; the tzatziki sauce was thickened with full-fat yogurt.
Then something strange caught my eye. I lifted my glass to take a better look at the black paper coaster. That's what I thought it said: "No. 5 Orange Showroom Pub." The No. 5 Orange is a raunchy strip club on Main Street. What the heck?
I was so shocked, I tweeted a photo: "I thought Anatoli was a family restaurant!?!" (There was a table in the corner with a toddler and a group of seniors on the patio.)
Co-owner Alexi Makris tweeted back right away. "We're much more family-focused at @AnatoliSouvlaki. Our Yaletown location lets us have a little fun!"
Okay, so it wasn't a mistake from the printing shop. I suppose coasters from an unrelated strip club could lend a few chuckles to a boring business lunch, in the right circumstances. But it's a good thing that little guy in the stroller is far too young to look up the No. 5's Instagram address, printed on the back of the coaster, which brings up a front-page collage of buxom breasts, bubble butts and a weird sad-faced monkey.
The original Anatoli Souvlaki has been a North Shore institution since 1984. A few years ago, Alexi and Iani Makris took over from their parents and refreshed the menu with brighter flavours and lighter dishes. The two brothers are young, friendly, fun-loving guys who can often be found carousing the downtown bar scene. So when the opportunity arose to create a second restaurant from scratch, they chose this rather raucous Yaletown corner (with neighbours such as West Oak, Phat, Romer's Burger Bar and the new Wild Tale Coastal Grill, the sidewalk patios can get rowdy on weekends) and stamped it with their own sense of light-hearted hedonism.
"Come back for dinner on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, when our menu and atmosphere really shine," Mr. Makris urged in a follow-up e-mail. "We think the No. 5 Orange coasters will add up for you then."
Yessiree, they certainly did. On Friday night, the place was packed. We saw some friends on the patio, squeezed together at a long communal table, and had a glass of wine. Inside, the club music was pumping. Alexi was doing chilled ouzo shots with a table of beautifully lithe women who resembled child-stripper hybrids. Actually, we saw Alexi slap back so many ouzo shots (always with guests, of course), I'm not sure how he was still standing at the end of the night. Oh, to be young again!
I liked the vibe. Who wants to dine in a morgue? But in my experience, the food at these type of restaurants (which includes most of The Greek's neighbours) is usually sacrificed at the altar of ambience. So, I was pleasantly surprised, on this night and a subsequent visit, to taste so many good dishes.
Executive chef Scott Robertson, who most recently worked in Whistler at the Four Seasons and the Westin, brings classical French flourish to country Greek cooking.
Don't miss out on his rabbit dishes. This sorely underused game meat – so satisfying yet light and perfect for summer – comes tenderly braised in kouneli styfado, a pasta-like orzo plate that is plumped up with buttery stock and adorned with crisp okra, softly stewed tomatoes and a fistful of fresh herbs. Rabbit kalamakia are petite grilled "popsicle" chops stuffed with a light lamb sausage, wrapped in crisp bacon and drizzled with a jus so glossy you'll want to lick your fingers.
Grilled octopus is neither limp nor tough, but pleasantly chewy with smoky charred tentacle cups tossed in warm lemon-caper dressing. Stuffed peppers and tomatoes are moist with a bright tomato sauce balanced on the edge of earthiness without tipping into herbal murkiness. Haloumi caprese, a toothier variation on the Italian mozzarella salad, comes alive with zesty fresh mint and deeply green olive oil.
Country lamb, one of the few family-style offerings (the rest are small-plate mezze), is a succulent bone-in shoulder that's been braised for four hours and revitalized in the saucepan with a ladle of rich stock. Even the rice has aromatic depth from well-seasoned mirepoix.
Fresh ingredients, quality stocks and à la minute saucing elevate this kitchen well above most of the Greek drek out there. So why, with all this attention to detail and freshness, does the chef use canned chickpeas in his hummus? It's only a dip, but I just can't get past it. Canned chickpeas have no soul. They taste tinny and chalky no matter how much garlic and lemon they're blended with.
"Do you know how much hummus we go through?" the chef says later, implying that dried chickpeas would be too labour intensive.
Exactly. Hummus is a staple. And as an introduction to the rest of the meal, it should shine brightest.
"As long as you get the seasoning right, it doesn't make much of a difference," he argues.
Oh, but it does. It makes a huge difference. And the fact that he doesn't respect the simplest of basics is way more offensive than the No. 5 Orange coasters.