Friday June 28, 2013 | 06:00 AM

Emilitsa does not follow the culinary pack. Certainly not in the extreme eats of food-centric Portland.  While our current crop of dining halls graze in artisanal delirium, I’ve come to appreciate the uncensored path that Emilitsa follows.

Ever since it opened its doors in 2010, along the burgeoning restaurant row that is now the Congress Street  Arts District, it’s been highly regarded for its unique interpretation of rustic-style Greek cuisine.

For the art walkers and others, Emilitsa is centrally located in the thick of downtown Portland

I’m not so sure rustic is a term that fits the bill from brothers John and Demos Regas, respectively proprietors and chef.  Because every dish is virtually a work of high art on the plate—these authentic dishes represent their Greek heritage, without trite references to gyro cuisine.

That I’ve not been one of its ardent followers has changed since my recent dinner there earlier this week.  In the past, I never warmed up to the place because I didn’t care for the room or the ambiance; the food, however, was always very good. 

With the bar still lit by daylight just before dusk it's a congenial spot to have a drink or dine in the bar room on comfortable banquettes

The long, narrow main dining room is a little tight but still quite attractrive

But whatever magic mallet knocked some sense into me, I’m left with an entirely new impression.  Perhaps because I was seated at one of the bar banquettes, which offers more space and congeniality than the long, narrow, cramped dining room.  And our waiter, who also mans the bar, displayed a level of expertise that hasn’t always been apparent there. 

Regarding the bar, Emilitsa finally succumbed to a liquor license last year, though you’d never know it by looking at its sparse arsenal of libations.  My dinner mate was able to order a vodka martini easily, but my request for a vodka negroni was beyond the bar’s capabilities; it doesn’t stock Campari, a key component in the drink.

A generously proportioned amuse-bouche  of yellow lentils, onion and fennel was sent out from the kitchen, perfect to have with cocktails

Regardless, I managed. In fact, our dinner for two was one of the best, most inventive meals I’ve had in Portland in a long while.  There’s none of that “look at me I’m local” syndrome, though there’s plenty of it in evidence on the menu.  And if I awarded  stars to my  critiques, Emilitsa would earn the real meaning of a four-star rating. 

I don’t profess to have much knowledge of Greek cuisine.  But what I now know is that whatever is on the menu  is absolutely delicious and beautifully prepared and presented. 

When our meal concluded, however, I was taken aback by the tab.  It’s expensive, to be sure, and with tax and tip the tally came to over $200  for two.

That’s taking into account, however, that the two of us had three appetizers, the third a result of our own doing. 

We had decided to order the calamari and chicken livers, two popular dishes on the list of starters.  As it turned out we were both served the calamari—we must have confused our waiter--and so we ordered the chicken livers to follow. 

For a fist course the chicken livers are a rich beginning, but they're so good the splurge is worth it

The calamari is deservedly one of the most popular starters on the menu 

It was well worth the extra tab. They were perfectly sautéed, lightly dusted in flour to give crispness and finished off with Greek oregano and swathed in a beurre blanc infused with white balsamic vinegar.

The calamari were wonderful, too.  They were grilled to develop a good char yet remained totally tender and creamy within. Under a coating of unfiltered Greek extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice and sesame toasts they were served over micro greens. It’s one of the best renditions of calamari in Portland.

For a main course I chose duck.  Here the breast was pan-roasted to medium rare, settled in a sauce made from a reduction of Attiki honey, Metaxa, balsamic and wild fennel pollen.  It was accompanied by fingerlings roasted in duck fat and grilled asparagus. Every component of the dish jibed to deliver  great nuance of flavor and texture.

The breast of duck is very tender and sweet, a rich and satisfying entree

My friend’s entrée was no less enticing.  Here was Maine halibut pan-seared in olive oil  to flakey white perfection.  It was moistened with a sweet peppery tomato sauce (saltsa piperias) accompanied by sugar snap peas and a lilting  potato garlic puree.

We still had room for dessert, which was well worth the calories to conclude this beautiful dinner.  One was a madly delicious Olympian cheese cake made with manouri sheep’s milk cheese, Greek yogurt and topped with dollops of sour cherries. The rice pudding that my friend ordered was another sweet triumph--a rich pudding infused with orange and lemon zest, and whipped cream with cinnamon powder.

Emilitsa's rendition of rice pudding is soulful and rich, far from the nursery-room variety

This is a unique cheesecake in taste and texture fortifed by the tang of manouri sheep's milk cheese and rich greek yogurt;  it's a must-have dessert essential at Emilitsa
 

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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