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Going Greek

No more food, now we must drink!
Monday Jan 16, 2006.     By Misty Tosh
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Since I blew through the islands of a Greece on a solo-backpacking trip a few years ago, the sinful tastes of Greek village food have haunted me. I always conjure up images of wizened elders churning out big slabs of cheese, wild greens being picked from nearby fields, just-caught octopus being fire-grilled and doused with fresh lemon, and still-warm wedges of thick sesame bread generously slathered with various garlic-infused spreads.

Try as I might, it's near impossible to bring those memories alive in the concrete jungle we call home, but I've happened upon a place that's the next best thing: Venus Greek-Cypriot Cuisine.

Just off the grid from the standard slew of Greektown restaurants, Venus offers quite a different beast in its approach. Instead of catering to the proverbial tourist (where you shuffle 'em in and shuffle 'em out even quicker), partners-in-crime Costas Stylianou and Gina Karatasios have created a lovely where-village-meets-sea haven. Saunter in, sit a spell and sample your way through wildly rustic village cuisine, one meze (small appetizer-style plate) at a time.

It's exactly my sort of restaurant, proven especially when the owner busts out a bottle of potent Zivinia (a Cypriot specialty) and cheerily states in traditional Greek fashion, "No more food, now we must drink!"

If you're not familiar with Cypriot cuisine, you're not alone. It's a mad jumble of Mediterranean flavors, dabbling in the Middle East, Turkey, France, Italy and most importantly, Greece. But, before you go thinking, "What about my beloved saganaki?" know that the favorites aren't missing, but are more intense. For instance, in addition to plain old saganaki, it serves halloumi ($7.25), a less-tangier, more rustic cheese that's fired up. This firm, incredibly addictive goat cheese was my first taste of Cyprus and one that will stick with my stunned taste buds for sometime. (I pretty much doused the whole serving in lemon and ate the entire block.)

I ordered up a king's feast: grilled baby octopus, a chewy charred taste of the Mediterranean; keftedes, traditional grilled Cypriot meatballs; koupepia, soft vine leaves stuffed with bits of pork and rice and resting in a bath of lemony olive oil; lightly fried zucchini with fresh garlic spread; and melitzanosalata, a smoked eggplant and pepper spread that was delicious on warm pita. And they were just the appetizers.

For the main course, I started with pastitsio tsoukas ($13.95), an incredibly rich dish that is now my new favorite thing to eat. Imagine long, fat noodles layered with thick slathers of ground beef and topped with an insanely decadent homemade bechamel sauce. It's baked in a clay pot and when the waiter presents it tableside, he flips it upside down and out pours this compact dish that's cut into four wedges. The crispy bechamel coating literally melts in your mouth. It's a masterpiece.

The kleftiko was my next favorite dish, but by the time it arrived, I was already several glasses of Greek wine in and could barely even bear the thought of more food. But I couldn't pass up individual packets of juicy lamb, oven-roasted for six hours with chunks of potatoes and slivers of onions. Just smelling the steam from the packet is enough to bring the whole table to their knees. Well, that and a few shots of Zivinia.

The Final Rave: In a few weeks, Venus will have put the final tweaks on a delicious lunch buffet ($9.95) that lets you sample its incredible cuisine at a fraction of the cost.

Keep It Going:

Read it: The Lingo
Go into your meal with a bit of knowledge after tackling this Cypriot glossary.

Drink it: Zivania
This clear-as-glass potion is liquid fire and 50 percent alcohol, but the Greeks seem to love it and down it with spirited abandon.

Eat it: City Fresh Market, 3201 W. Devon
Traipse into this affordable international grocery store and load up on goodies from around the world, including treats from Greece, Hungary, Poland and Morocco.

Get crazy with it: Wheelie Cyprus
Bike across the countryside of Cyprus with this specialty outfitter. Not only will you get in shape, you'll sample village food in the remote towns at the end of every grueling ride.

Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.

 

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