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So, of course, there are grape leaves on Yanni's menu -- ripe and tender like steamed spinach and stuffed with herbed rice -- as well as feta and gyros and souvlaki. Like Turkish food and Moroccan food and a lot of Middle Eastern foods, Greek cooking relies on what first appears to be a limited number of possible ingredients. Salt and pepper, yogurt and cucumber, olives and lemons, and pita and phyllo recur again and again. But then, what does it take to make a great piece of fish? Lemon and butter and nothing else. And you don't need a deep pantry to make sinagrida -- grilled red snapper -- or oktapodi (octopus) marinated in olive oil.
At Yanni's, the mezedes -- a long list of appetizers, tastes of this and that, small plates that can easily be combined to make a meal -- reads like an Aegean dream sequence, like poetry spoken in a language you only understand in your sleep. I eat long, lingering dinners of nothing but mezedes, never even turning the pages of the menu. Dolmades and kalamaria; tiri that's really just a plate of imported feta soaked in olive oil and sprinkled with oregano, perfect in its restraint and simplicity; spanikopita with spinach and feta layered inside phyllo; tiropita that's a little soggy but comes stuffed with three kinds of herbed cheese and tastes almost like a cold Spanish omelette wrapped in a hundred layers of pastry. There's tzatziki, of course, made with yogurt, cucumber and "secret seasonings" and served with pita, then skordalia (a potato, garlic, garlic and garlic purée), then hot sausage dressed in lemon called loukaniko, then more skordalia and melitzanes (eggplant) done in an approximation of the Italian street-food style, with red gravy.
The saganaki is served flaming and tastes of the cheap brandy that gives it life, overtopped by the sting of lemons squeezed at the table to keep the flames leaping. The cheese itself -- Kasseri -- is funky and strong. The mythia might as well be French, because it's mussels sautéed with garlic and olive oil and drowned in white wine, which is the best preparation of mussels that man has ever invented. And while most French restaurants would offer two or five or a dozen other preparations, Yanni's recognizes that the best one is enough.
5425 Landmark Place
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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Lamb souvlaki: $13.95
At some point after we're seated but before the first plates begin arriving, Yanni himself always comes around with the bottle of ouzo and a stack of plastic shot glasses, pouring and grinning, barking "Opa!" as we tap them and drink -- a taste like black licorice set on fire.
Sit in the front room where the bar is, and Yanni may drop by more than once. He may even stop and chat. He's not a host so much as a pal, happy to see everyone who finds their way to his little restaurant -- and, like his friendly staff, is always happy to serve, something that becomes increasingly rare the more a restaurant leans toward cuisine, the further it gets from its duty of cooking for friends and neighbors. In the side room, the ceiling sags a little and the paint is chipped. The space looks a little ragged, but when it's full of families and regulars and the Greeks who swear by Yanni's versions of everything, I tend to forget about that. The chairs wobble and there are crayon marks on the plaster, but I don't care once the ouzo is drunk, chased with a cold Heineken, and the waitress lights the saganaki.
My last time through, I ordered a double brace of mezedes just to get started, then the lamb souvlaki. But by the time the apps plates were cleared from the table, the ouzo swallowed and first beers put away, I'd forgotten what I'd ordered, because when the waitress brought my entree, it never occurred to me that it wasn't the right one. It was lamb -- beautiful and sliced thin off a leg, capped with fat and rubbed with black pepper -- and it looked fine to me. The waitress, though, realized her mistake before I'd gotten a chance to cut a bite and swooped down on the table apologetically, saying, "I'm sorry. That's not yours, is it?"
I said no, probably not, but asked what it was.
"Our barbecue special. Lamb barbecue," she replied. She looked over her shoulder, quickly scanned the dining room. Then she picked a small piece of meat off the plate with her fingers, dropped it on my plate and said, conspiratorially, "Here. Have a taste."
Maybe in some restaurants, this would have been strange. Or even wrong. But not here, not in this room, and not on this night. This lamb is what Stavropoulos cooks on that big, monster grill out front of the place. Not all he cooks there, but all I need. It was the best lamb I've tasted in my life.
At Yanni's, the souvlaki is good -- tender and bloody and grill-scarred and served with a side of lemon rice that's as good as any risotto -- but the barbecued lamb is better. The pastitsio is good, the Greek-spiced lamb shank is good, that snapper a hallmark of trusting in good ingredients to carry a dish wherever it needs to go, but the barbecued lamb is still better. It should be curriculum, the ultimate argument for food over cuisine. One taste -- one little slip of perfectly rare meat with a lace of fresh-squeezed lemon and a narrow rind of fat running around its edge -- and I knew that this was it: a singular and defining flavor, as old as time, but so surprising at that first bite.