I fell in love with Greece while sitting at a rickety wooden table at a cafe in Corinth, picking at a brick of feta. My infatuation was initially superficial, of course; the country is beautiful viewed from the deck of a boat navigating around white islands on the royal-blue sea, each stop an excuse to eat olives and sip ouzo or just sit on the beach with your toes in the sand.
Ultimately, though, it wasn't Greece's surface-level beauty that captivated me. It was something deeper. I felt it as I walked the streets of Athens, trying to wrap my mind around the patchwork of ancient and modern architecture, all in some state of disarray. The feeling deepened each time I sat down to eat, usually in one of the small local joints, where proprietors talked passionately with their hands and argued with their family members, ignoring — or drawing in — the customers who sat nearby. The rich history, vibrant culture and bubbling tensions brought on by poverty, European integration and Greece's proximity to the Middle East seemed to be roiling just below the surface, creating a static energy that felt like it could burst free at any time — like, oh, say, now, when the country happens to be embroiled in a deep economic crisis.
But for me, things started to click over that simple square of tart, freshly made feta. Greece is an old soul, one that focuses on the little things in life the way that only an old soul can. Its people have survived for thousands of years. It knows where its priorities lie, and those priorities generally involve such daily pleasures as good company and good food.
Unfortunately, those priorities also seem to get short shrift at the Greek restaurants in Denver. Plenty of places here serve up the traditional dishes, but they do so with a joylessness — plopping lackluster goat cheese on old produce or dried-out kabobs on a bed of rice, yelling "Opa!" and calling it good. "Opa" is an expression of joy; I have a hard time believing those dishes deserve it.
But since I'm not heading back to Greece anytime soon, I keep looking for a local place that captures what I love about that country. And my quest recently took me to Axios Estiatorio.
The first time I grabbed a table at the restaurant, our waiter was standing two tables away, entertaining a toddler shrieking with kiddie giggles in her high chair. "Her dad will be back in a minute," he said. "Can I take your order?"
We offered our lunch selections, which the server wrote dutifully on a little pad. "Um, I'll put those right in," he said without budging. We shared an awkward moment of silence while his fleeting involvement with one customer's personal life conflicted with his public service, sending everything slightly off kilter. But then the little girl's father returned, asking for a glass of white wine as he sat down, and our server hurried off to put things in motion for our meal.
He returned a few minutes later with a couple of appetizers, including a dish of garlic-smacked hummus sided with warm pita and crisp sticks of celery and carrots. The hummus was excellent; healthy eating would be a lot easier if I could have this dip with vegetables every day for lunch. Better still were the dolmades: slick, soft grape leaves tightly wrapped a package of still-fluffy rice redolent with red wine, onions and garlic. The dish had the clean bite of pine nuts within and without — a handful of the seeds were scattered over the top — and a squeeze of lemon added zip to the basil-flecked cream sauce pooled in the bottom of the dish. The dolmades were at once familiar and unique, unlike any dolmade I'd seen before but still traditionally Greek in flavor.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Axios Estiatorio
Before we'd finished our starters, the server delivered our entrees. My Greek salad, a pile of fresh romaine, chunks of cucumber, briny olives and sharp feta, was dressed with a whisper of vinaigrette, lifted by lemon and rooted by good olive oil. I was glad I'd added the gyro meat, made from lamb and beef ground together and crisped on a spit — but I wished I'd subtracted the tomatoes, which were mealy and out of season.
Somehow, the tomatoes seemed fresher in my friend's appetizer serving of kalamari, the supple rings of squid left naked of batter and instead sautéed with those tart tomatoes and slightly bitter spinach. The mix became deliciously soupy, punched up with the salty acidity imparted by olives and capers, the bite of onions and garlic, the lifting hit of white wine and sherry. It was as light as a seafood salad, as satisfying as a seafood stew — and had clearly been cooked with love.
Telly Topakas took over this address last year after Brasserie Felix shut its doors. The restaurateur had owned a Greek spot in Colorado Springs for more than a decade with his brother, but when he decided to open a place of his own in Denver, he wanted to do things differently. And so he drew up plans for an estiatorio, a Greek version of an upscale trattoria. He gave the location a makeover, adding accents of vibrant Mediterranean blue and a rust-colored tile floor to the long, sunny space; a dark wooden divider separates the dining room from the frequently full bar. The entire space is warmly lit, with Greek music playing over the speakers; it's at once lively and intimate.
But while Axios feels Greek, Topakas didn't want to serve just the traditional staples. He hired Royce Oliveira to command the kitchen — a chef who'd trained under Frank Bonnano but had never done Greek cuisine. But that may have been for the best: Free from any restraints, Oliveira constructed a menu that pays reverent homage to the flavors and ingredients of Greece while also encompassing clever upgrades and subtle twists. No one could accuse Oliveira of bastardizing the classics here — but this isn't a gyro joint, either.
I developed a real appreciation for Oliveira's approach during my second meal at Axios, on a weekend night when the couple to my left was celebrating a belated Valentine's Day and the couple to my right got their food without even ordering, after calling their server by his first name and inquiring about his family. I was there with a visiting friend, and we started with glasses of juicy, teeth-staining Xinomavro — Axios has an excellent list of Greek wines to explore, like tropical white Moscofilero and a light-bodied cabernet — plus more of that feta, this time served drizzled with olive oil and supplemented with kalamata, Halkidiki and wrinkled black olives. I couldn't resist the saganaki — I'm a sucker for hot, melted cheese — and ours was ceremoniously delivered while still in flames, two servers crying "Opa!" as they set it on the table. This is a by-the-book Greek dish, and it was also the weakest one I tried at Axios. The strong sheep's-milk cheese was so soaked in brandy that the tear-inducing sting of alcohol remained long after the fire had crisped the edges of the cheese. Even with a healthy shot of lemon, I found it hard to swallow.
But our entrees quickly doused that memory. I'd ordered Makaronia Me Keftedes, Greek spaghetti and meatballs. A bed of perfectly al dente linguine had been covered with a ground-lamb-specked tomato sauce with just a bit of heat; the garlicky lamb-and-beef meatballs on top had the flavor of gyro meat. The dish was supposed to be finished with sheep's-milk cheese, but its flavor was lost — perhaps because the dairy wasn't freshly grated.
My friend was enjoying the brizole so much that he wouldn't take a break to talk, and after I stole a bite, I could see why. The bone-in pork chop, encrusted with salt and pepper, had been grilled a perfect medium. As he sawed off slices with a knife, juice bled out into a plate pooled with pan drippings, chickpeas and blanched Swiss chard, heightening the careful balance of bitter and savory flavors. As much as I'd liked Axios's hummus, though, the smear on top of the meat was not just superfluous, but unharmonious.
We ended our dinner with a light version of baklava — the flaky pastry and almond paste were drizzled with honey rather than drowned in it — as well as a raisiny dessert wine from Etko that wasn't unlike a tawny port. As I sipped, I watched the grinning waiters dart around the rapidly filling restaurant, sometimes carrying orders of saganaki out of the kitchen, blue flames dancing over the white bricks as they delivered them to the tables, then cried "Opa!"
Axios deserves its own "Opa!" Even if Topakas never brings us the Mediterranean, Axios will always be Greek to me.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Axios Estiatorio