For more than a year, Mark Antonation ate his way up Federal Boulevard. With that journey done, he'll now explore different cuisines from around the globe right here in metro Denver, one month at a time, in Ethniche.
Yanni's Greek Restaurant styles itself as a taverna in the traditional sense: a place for family and friends to gather over coffee, drinks, food and conversation. Yanni's moved to the Landmark development in 2009 from its longtime home on Monaco to take advantage of the new high-rise residents in the complex and office workers from the surrounding Tech Center. Even if the exterior feels a little sterile -- this is a retail-and- restaurant enclave surrounded by hulking glass, stone and steel corporate offices -- walking into the dining room somehow vanquishes any nearby emanations of commerce and corporate-speak.
Not that the décor at Yanni's is especially Greek, the way many of its restaurant kin lean; there's very little bright blue of the Hellenic flag, no posters of whitewashed villages clinging to Mediterranean cliffs, hardly a classical-period bust or column to be found. But there's a low buzz from diners enjoying themselves over well-paced meals and an age range among the guests that suggests a following of multiple generations. It adds up to more than the concrete and glass bones of the place can convey on their own.
Business was good the night I visited; a full patio and a steady stream of customers in the dining room kept the waitstaff busy. This was the first time I'd eaten at the tavern since the move, but other than the décor, little has changed. Owner Yanni Stavropoulos still makes his rounds, offering sips of ouzo in tiny plastic shotglasses to guests at every table. Many of those guests he knows by name; he introduces himself to the others, like Amy and me. We sat at a high bar table near a window to soak in the bright Denver sunlight -- similar, I suspect, to the cloudless skies of Greece itself. It was a slow night only for the bartender, who seemed happy to have customers in her section. (The bar itself remained empty during our stay.)
After sips of ouzo, we turned to generous pours of wine while deciding on food. A trio of spreads called the Village Sampler turned out to be a great choice for sampling the kitchen's skills. A rich and oceany taramasalata, thick and glossy like homemade mayonnaise, spoke strongly of its coastal origins. Tiny cod roe popped between my teeth in contrast with the slices of cucumber I chose in place of pita. A zingy orange chtipiti -- new to me -- offered a powerful bite with roasted red pepper blended into sharp feta cheese. A homely but still tasty melizanes held the fruity and smoky flavor of eggplant.
I was glad I stuck with cucumber instead of bread once my entrée showed up. A brick-sized slice of moussaka dominated its large plate, alongside a pile of fasolakia (stewed green beans). Beneath a thick but delicate layer of béchamel, tender ground beef, spiced with a heady blend of cinnamon and other wintry spices, held sway over a tidy stack of eggplant slices, almost like a confit of eggplant soaking in the juices and fat of the meat. It was a wonderful, if heavy, rendition of moussaka; the ingredients seemed fresh and alive with their individual flavors even while combining to form a rustic but cohesive sensibility. I just can't seem to fathom fasolakia, though, even if Yanni's version is clearly made from fresh -- not canned -- ingredients. Fortunately, my grandmother was not Greek; I would have disappointed her with the amount of green beans I left behind on my plate.
Amy's octopus showed off an almost inexplicable combination of charred exterior and meltingly tender interior. Big chunks of the sea creature proved remarkably close in texture to well-cooked potatoes, with addictive umami and mild sweetness balancing the deep flavor of Aegean seawater. Despite generous servings, we polished off our plates and still had a little room for dessert: a dense, not flaky baklava. I usually prefer a lighter baklava, but this one wasn't too sweet and was thick with a finely ground paste of honey and nuts.
Yanni's is evidence that Greek cuisine in Denver doesn't need to be consigned to the realm of diner-style restaurants that split their kitchen's skills between American standards, Greek plates and sometimes even Mexican offerings. It's also proof that comfort and hospitality are about more than physical surroundings. After nearly thirty years of dishing up classic Greek fare, Yanni's still manages to seem young and fresh while embracing guests with old-world charm.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.