If Jimmy the Greek were putting odds on Jimmy's Greek restaurant, he'd probably say it was a sure thing.
But then, Jimmy the Greek doesn't know that Denver diners are a real handicap for Greek restaurants.
The Jimmy of Jimmy's--really Demetrios Lemonidis, "but everybody calls me Jimmy because of the `Jimmy the Greek' thing, you know"--is dismayed by this city's apparent disdain for the cuisine of his native country. "Inexpensive ethnic food is so big," says Jimmy, former co-owner and chef at Regas Cafe. "Greek food is good, and it has a good price. Why doesn't it catch on?"
Good question. After all, Greek cooking relies on many of the same ingredients making Mediterranean food so popular right now: fresh herbs, roasted chicken, lean meats, olive oil and wine. And Greek is one of the few cuisines still safe from the fat police.
One reason Denver diners may be reluctant to go Greek is that they've never gotten past the gyros stage. When that particular sandwich hit it big, many Greek-food purveyors (and many non-Greeks who didn't know what they were doing) were content to sell nothing but gyros, which was cheap and easy to prepare. But Jimmy didn't want to settle for that. Sure, his new place offers gyros, but it also serves higher-end standards such as moussaka and souvlaki. And the kitchen is careful to use only higher-end components in its cooking.
But the key, not-so-secret ingredient is Jimmy himself.
We met him after the waitress chickened out on flaming our kasseri ($4.95). "I don't want to burn my hair off," she explained. Out of the kitchen came Jimmy, wearing a white T-shirt and apron. He poured the 151 over the breaded cheese and deftly torched it, all the while keeping up a steady stream of "How are you doing--how did you hear about us--let me tell you about Jimmy's." When the flames died down, he cut the slab into six pieces, then raced back to the kitchen--but not before telling us that we "must enjoy."
We did. The breading was heavy enough to provide texture without becoming a barrier to the runny cheese, and the rum cooked off to a more biting flavor than is left by ouzo, the more traditional fuel. After we'd eaten every bite, we knew why Jimmy had run back to the kitchen, because we had quite a wait for our next dish. The delay gave us ample opportunity to absorb all the bar noise coming from MJ's Bar, which shares a hallway with Jimmy's front dining room; the back dining room is much quieter. After our octopus appetizer ($5.95) finally arrived, though, we were willing to forgive and forget. Large pieces of the unusually tender mollusk were set off by a tangy, tomato-based marinade, and the dish came with more delicious kasseri cheese, Kalamata olives, croutons and tomato wedges.
If the octopus was exotic, the avgolemono soup ($1.50 a cup) was the opposite. Avgolemono is one of Greek cooking's most basic components; the lemon-egg flavoring is used in quite a few dishes. But in Jimmy's soup, the lemon was barely evident and the soup tasted like plain chicken with rice.
That was Jimmy's only departure from good taste, however. As one of our entrees, we'd ordered the original "hellas" trio ($8.95), which normally features a slice each of spinach-cheese pie, moussaka and pastitsio, as well as a Greek salad. Since he was out of the pastitsio, Jimmy sent his deepest apologies and larger portions of the first two items to make up for the lack of the macaroni-and-ground-beef pie. The substitution was fine with us, because the moussaka was outstanding. A base of sliced potatoes supported a block of food that alternated nutmeg-infused ground beef, paper-thin slices of eggplant and a creamy, cheesy custard; the top had been toasted to a dark brown, which intensified both the flavor of the cheese and the dish's visual appeal. The spinach-cheese pie was a more typical layering of phyllo pastry with spinach and feta cheese (maybe some cottage cheese, too). Unfortunately, phyllo isn't one of those things you can whip together on call, and after a trip to Jimmy's microwave, this pie was in danger of becoming a soggy, wrinkled mess.
The Athenian chicken ($6.95), on the other hand, came straight from the oven trailing the scent of its marinade: lemon and oregano, and plenty of both. When we cut into the crunchy skin of this half a bird, we released a flood of juice similar to the liquid that had been used to braise the accompanying roasted potatoes. It was heaven.
So was the baklava ($2.50), made by Jimmy's wife, Eva. This was the drippiest, ooziest, sweetest version I've encountered of this delectable dessert, and I'm not embarrassed to admit that we used our fingers to get the last of the syrup pooling around the nut-filled pastry.
Like Jimmy, John and Pat Bassoukas, the owners of Metropolis, are baffled by Denver's lack of interest in Greek food. And also like Jimmy, the Bassoukases are forced to offer Mexican meals in addition to their regular Greek menu. "The neighborhood demands it," says daughter Rosy, who works at the fern bar-meets-diner-style restaurant. "Especially at this part of Colfax. They just won't support a totally Greek place."
But when we ordered, we went totally Greek, eager to sample the incredibly inexpensive stuff on the rather small list. Although Metropolis offers no appetizers, the entrees come with salad or soup, and the portions are large. Country-style lamb ($5.95) brought a large hunk of phyllo filled with lamb, peas, artichoke bits and feta. The stuffing was nicely spiced, with nutmeg dominant, but the phyllo had that horrible chewiness that results from massive microwaving. I'd rather wait for food reheated in the oven than waste ten minutes trying to tear it apart. The moussaka ($5.25), which had been heated properly, was a considerable improvement. It had a sweet, creamy topping and the usual layers of soft eggplant, ground beef and potatoes (these were mashed), augmented by a notable mix of spices that included cinnamon and the traditional nutmeg.
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The salad that came with the lamb was the standard iceberg-tomato-cucumber mix, but it came with a peculiar, supposedly blue-cheese dressing that tasted a little like mayonnaise and nothing like blue cheese. The beef-vegetable soup was better, a collection of summer vegetables in a fairly strong beef base.
Not surprisingly, considering the restaurant's style and prices, the gyros sandwich ($4.50) was the real standout. The pita was fresh, as were the diced onions and tomatoes, and the lamb was real--not processed and pressed. The tsatsiki wasn't overloaded with cucumber, as that sauce often is, and even the yogurt had a just-made quality.
So did the galaktoburiko ($1.50), a phyllo-encrusted custard pie that was served chilled, which played up its creamy interior. Sadly, the microwave had been pressed back into service for the baklava ($1.25), which had been nuked into a mushy mass.
If the Bassoukases would simply unplug that infernal machine, their food would be fit for the gods. And in the meantime, it's certainly good enough for Denver diners.