March 16, 2010

The gods of Greek cuisine are smiling at Emilitsa

— The vibrant flavors of Greece at Emilitsa are just what Maine needs.

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Thursday, May15, 2008. Server Jada Clement serves plevrakia arnou (lamb rib) and garithes (grilled shrimp) at Emilitsa on Congress st. in Portland.

Owner John Regas named his restaurant after his late mother (Emilitsa is Emily in Greek), and has all of her recipes. Her terrific cooking gave him the idea for the restaurant, which opened in midwinter just when the cuisine of the sun was most welcome.

But whether the weather is dreary and cold or hot and sunny, the Greek cuisine that Emilitsa prepares so well will enliven an evening and shake you out of your routine.

Lively and pungent garlic and lemon flit in and out of many dishes, while oregano evokes a dry, fragrant hillside overlooking a sea far different from the northern Atlantic. In fact, everything on these plates at Emilitsa seem infused with another world.

Sharp, creamy feta, made with sheep's milk and creamier than the more typical in America, sharp goat's milk feta and good olives are on every entree plate. Ariston Greek olive oil, a high-quality oil used in almost everything including dessert, imparts rich flavors.

Plates of lamb, beef and fish all showed off excellent flavor, with the only absence a more emphatic flavor of lamb -- something that might be found on the plate of lamb chops I did not taste.

While we enjoyed a free plate of split pea puree and thin raw onion, spread on spears of toasted, crunchy bread lavished with olive oil, the friendly server brought us taste after taste of the unfamiliar Greek wines. The 2004 Orphanos Assyrtiko from Santorini ($8 a glass, $32 a bottle) was a favorite among the whites, bright and sharp enough to vie with the flavorful food. Boutari Xinomavro ($8 a glass, $32 a bottle), a 2004 red from Naoussa, seemed thin, so we agreed on a bottle of the Palivou Nemea ($9 a glass and $36 a bottle), a strong red from the Nemea Valley, over the Bay of Corinth, with some depth of fruit amid the scent of oak.

Appetizers are all tempting. The fresh Greek sardines ($11) marinated in lemon and lime juice brought out the lively, fresh flavors of that tender fish on the crunchy, oiled toast, a smear of Greek yogurt and a thin slice of cucumber in between.

Skorthalia ($7), a monumental pile of garlicky pureed potatoes, could be shared by two, as could the poikilia trio ($11), made up of three fine spreads. The Emilitsa tzatziki is mild, a creamy, dense yogurt mixed with dill, and the taramosalata, pureed redfish roe, tempers its salty pungency with a base of bread crumbs as smooth as silk. But best of all is the melitzanosalata, fresh, brilliantly seasoned roast eggplant full of oregano. The grilled pita alongside is chewy and irresistible; it comes from a Greek bakery in Haverhill, Mass.

A large, round wall hanging evokes the lambskins or flokati that are so much a part of Greek culture, set elegantly on pale brick. ''It's an artificial flokati,'' Regas said. ''It looks very real, but it's a cotton imitation.''

It hangs above a long white-wheat upholstered bench with a line of cushions, which might bring to mind a certain symposium. Around a corner in the back is a wall painting of a young man carrying many fish whose presence seems like a blessing of vitality and abundance.

It's a copy of a painting done in 1500 BC in the Knossos palace on the island of Crete. This one was painted by local interior designer Judy Schneider, who with her office Interior Resources also helped Regas get the business set up.

Trea arnakia ($28), a lamb chop, lamb ribs and somewhat muted lamb meatballs called keftethes, presented small portions of each, with seasonings and sauces taking precedence over the lamb flavor. The lamb ribs were utterly tender and its sauce tangy, and the thin chop tender and redolent of herbs.

Lavraki latholemono is a loup de mer, or fresh Mediterranean sea bass, a whole fish with a dense, fine-textured white flesh, its head stuffed with a lemon slice and its body cavity full of roasted parsley. The fine taste of this fish is partly due to its being roasted whole, Regas said; customers are warned ahead of time the fish is served with its head and tail. Small saffron- and honey-seethed onions introduced an earthy, sweet note, and a rice pilaf shared the plate.

The 20-ounce steak I chose, brizola kai patates psites ($35), was the priciest thing on the menu, but its description of grass-fed, dry-aged Porterhouse was irresistible. I did resist most of the ''onion marmalade,'' thick, soft sliced onion, and the lemon-roasted potatoes that tasted of the good olive oil. But the meat from Cold Spring Ranch in North New Portland was concentrated and flavorful. Fine herbs on the exterior kept the flavor Mediterranean.

For a far more economical meal it would be fun to try the moussaka ($17) made with beef, or the gigantes sto fournou ($18), a vegetarian dish of giant white beans cooked with tomato-dill sauce.

But good fortune was upon us that night, and we could dine straight into dessert. The baklava ($7) suffered from too much cinnamon, but was admirably fresh and thickly filled with walnuts between delicate filo crusts.

The excellent semolina olive-oil cake, lathotourta ($7), was a small cylinder cut in half, stuffed with lime chantilly, a really thick, wonderful whipped cream flavored with lime. Syrup and a couple of thin orange slices added to its charms.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.

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