Beyond Baklava
[from April 2004 issue]

As someone who has equated Greek cooking with moussaka, squid, pita bread, and potent ouzo, I stand corrected. After a dinner at Mourayo (meaning “mooring,” as in safe harbor)--Dupont Circle's instant Greek experience--I see boundless opportunities for basking in the Mediterranean sun without setting foot outside of DC.

A hyperbole? No. Eating around town teaches several things: Many restaurants serve lackluster food, some of it barely edible. Others can't solve the service angle or they charge way too much for way too little. But management at Mourayo has it figured out: Offer phenomenal food, keep prices reasonable, and reward patrons with vigilant service. That may sound obvious, but there's even more at Mourayo. Its kitchen solves the "what-do-we-serve-them-and-keep-it-interesting" dilemma.

Credit for this belongs to the owner, Natalina Koropoulos, and to her young Greek chef. As she notes, Greek food today in the U.S. parallels how Italian food was considered 25 years ago, when most Americans thought lasagna meant Italian cooking. But, says Koropoulos, she has thought about the gastronomic implications of introducing Greek cooking as we've never tasted it here before. That has meant digging around through Greek food history, and discovering the seasonings and spices--probably even ingredients--that the ancient Greeks used.

The challenge has come with applying that knowledge to today's menu, and arriving at what I think may be "nouvelle" Greek cooking, a lighter, livelier compilation of dishes to showcase this Mediterranean way of eating. It's original, contemporary, and may be a portent of things to come in this country's cuisine.

Take the pork, for example. For one, who knew Greeks ever ate pork? Isn't this the land of roast lamb and squid? Not so fast. What the kitchen has created is pork like no other, a roasted pork loin seasoned with a reduction of fig preserves and Greek wine, with an additional flavor boost from honey and manouri cheese. What you taste is flavor upon flavor with hints of sweet and savory in every mouthful. Not surprisingly, this dish is a top seller, said our waiter.

Or consider another favorite, the lamb stew with orzo, a familiar Greek assembly of ingredients, but with one key difference. Instead of hacking up lamb shoulder and cooking bones and meat together, the chef here bones a leg of lamb, using only the most tender cubes for the dish.

Other entrée possibilities include a mixed seafood soup, sautéed quail with a lemon sauce, and assorted whole grilled fish. As one colleague exclaims, this was the best fish, head and all, he'd ever eaten.

Don't assume you should simply bypass appetizers, for then you'd forego the sautéed shrimp with a traditional rendering of a Greek tomato sauce fortified with feta, or the very unusual Beggar's Pouch, a twist of phyllo dough encasing a red pepper and cheese filling and baked until the manouri cheese is oozing. You may also receive a gratis sampler to whet appetites before appetizers. Ours was a squid ink soup, dark and murky tasting, the only jarring note of the meal.

I asked about the desserts, which go way beyond baklava. Yes, you'll spy a galaktoboureko, the typical phyllo pastry filled with creamy custard. But the gods on Mount Olympus must sigh over the Aspasia's Ecstasy, a fruit compote of strawberries poached in red wine, saffron, a hint of sweetener, and olives, and topped with vanilla ice cream. It sounds trivial, like a mediocre fruit cocktail perhaps. But the flavor combination is electrifying.

How often do you mourn the meal's end? We did, remarking that this was one of those rare dining-out events. Everything worked well and worked together.

Mourayo, 1732 Conn. Ave.; 667-2100. Open for lunch Mon.-Fri. & dinner nightly. Entrée price range: $18.95 to market price for the fish. All major credit cards.

*Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for The Washington Post and The Washington Times, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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