“A customer’s dining experience begins long before the first taste. It starts the moment they walk through the door: A friendly greeting, a welcoming environment, a drink preference remembered. All of this occurs even before the amuse-bouche. It doesn’t stop until the last crumb of dessert, the final sip of Greek coffee, or even when coats are retrieved.”
These words are from Demos Regas, half of the two-brother team that owns and operates Portland’s elegant Greek restaurant, Emilitsa. Demos, 62, is the chef, and John, 58, is the general manager.
While they were both raised in their father’s Duluth, Minn., diner, the brothers took decidedly non-restaurant paths (pipe-fitting, corporate retail management, medical supply sales) until careful demographic analysis brought them to Portland. It was, they thought, a perfect place to open a Greek restaurant.
Four years later, Emilitsa, named in honor of their mother, is going strong. But forget pizza joints and gyro stands; Emilitsa’s menu is a panoply inspired by family recipes that include the boldest of bold flavors — lemons, olives, feta, oregano, nutmeg, anise and tomato among them.
“We are accustomed to using a lot of herbs and spices directly from Greece to stimulate the palate.” This, from John, turns out to be an understatement of the highest possible order. Each forkful is a tribute to Mediterranean regional cuisine.
My descriptions are not inflated — Emilitsa is just that good. On a cold, rainy spring night, I met my husband at Emilitsa to battle the gray weather and surround ourselves with color and flavor. Remember the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy’s house lands after the cyclone, and suddenly her world moves from grayscale to Technicolor? That is the Emilitsa dining experience.
You think you know green snap peas, meaty swordfish or even the magnificent creamy potato puree that is more hummus than potato in texture? Well, you think you know these menu items until you sit down at an Emilitsa table, and suddenly your eyes are opened wide, and the experience becomes almost three-dimensional with color and flavor in every direction.
But first, the wine. Because neither of us is especially familiar with Greek wines, we asked our server for her advice. A savvy and approachable wine enthusiast, she suggested several options, including a bottle of 2006 Palivou Vineyards Nemea ($45).
As promised, this red wine tasted soft and balanced, with none of the old-school Retsina pine prejudice that Greek wines often fight against.
The menu, organized thoughtfully, contained large and small plate options that ranged from rabbit to swordfish. (It is important to note the menu changes frequently, so it is best to call ahead to confirm the presence of fan favorites.)
We chose Htenia Kai Meh Ouzo ($15), which translates to “Maine scallops in an ouzo-flavored tomato cream sauce.” I was familiar with the anise-flavored ouzo beverage commonly served in celebratory Greek shots, but Emilitsa’s anise-flavored cream sauce tempers the licorice tang to a subtle essence. Combined with tender local scallops, this dish was easily my favorite of the night.
Domata Salata ($12) was presented as an ample plate of cucumber, tomato, large pieces of feta, red onion and garlic tossed in a pungent olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It was plenty for two people to share, and I was impressed by the impossibly red, ripe and sweet tomatoes somehow found not in August, but in March in Maine.
Because this is a restaurant with traditional Greek roots, I also ordered Moussaka ($23) from the comfort-food section of the menu.
Emilitsa’s moussaka is not Greek diner fare or served from a buffet-line steam tray. The Regas brothers layer tender eggplant lasagna-style, with a ragout of tomato-based meat sauce and topped with a golden crust of native yogurt custard. The portion was ample, and the entire dish was a medley of savory sophistication.
Kseefias Meh Peperias ($28) sounds so very exotic — Gulf swordfish with a sweet red pepper stew, sugar snap peas and skorthalia, a potato-garlic puree. This was another Oz moment. The greens and reds, with a smooth, garlic-laden potato, had my imagination thinking ruby slippers, Emerald City and yellow brick roads.
Dessert was Baklava ($8) with flakes of delicate phyllo topping a thick cluster of walnuts and the purest-tasting Greek Evian mountain honey syrup, a sweet complement to the robust and bitter (but in a good way) Greek Coffee ($4). The delicate swirl of candy garnish was just bonus.
I reflected on the elegant design of the restaurant’s narrow space, and this was the exact moment my husband put down his coffee cup and leaned his head slightly to the left.
“You have such pretty eyes,” he said, and I credit his spontaneous observation to a state of food bliss that matched my own. I thanked him, and, in an uncharacteristic display of public affection, held his hand.
If you, too, go to Emilitsa on a miserable, wet day and sit in the orange, ambient lighting at a table spread with magnificent flavors, textures and color, life becomes a little softer and fills with a kind appreciation that makes a world as far away as the Greek coast — or even Oz — seem within reach.
Thank you, Regas brothers, for bringing this experience to Portland.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”