In the hands of a great chef, any cuisine can feel modern, even one that dates back millennia. That's not normally the case when it comes to Greek cooking, a playbook that too often gets represented through lumpy dips, dry kebabs and muddy stews.
You'll have to drive all the way out to Avon Lake to chase down the best contemporary Greek food in the region. That's where chef Peter "Taki" Diamantis works his magic, at a sharp little bistro called Taki's Greek Kitchen. From dips to dessert, Diamantis treats his ingredients with the care and attention they deserve, resulting in dishes that are bright, clean, fresh and bursting with life.
Also refreshing is the space, a light-flooded dining room with an open kitchen, small bar and central fireplace. It's a far cry from the dingy gyro dens that sadly pass as Greek eateries in this town. Our server could not have been more helpful, describing unfamiliar dishes and asking the chef for wine recommendations off the mainly Greek list. You know you're in good hands at a Greek restaurant when even the pita bread is seasoned; at most joints you're lucky to get pita that isn't stiff as a Frisbee.
Here, the bread is thick, warm and griddled to goodness – served up in a basket with a zippy roasted red pepper dip. The pita is so good, in fact, that it's a shame to waste it on a single dip. Spring for the Trio of Dips ($11) and you'll be dragging that bread through a salty-spicy feta dip, an airy cheese and pepper spread, and skordalia, a tangy pureed potato dip.
In fact, you can have a field day snacking at Taki's thanks to a dozen snacks, small plates, and Greek-themed flatbreads. Diamantis single-handedly is creating a market for octopus – an ingredient that's not exactly flying out of local kitchens. The chef nails the preparation, hitting that sweet spot between too-chewy and cooked-to-pudding. Firm, meaty and possessing a nice char, the octopus ($10) is cut into segments and tossed into a warm potato salad with arugula and an herb vinaigrette.
Other great small plates worth trying include the tiropita ($8), phyllo bundles that taste a lot like cheese-stuffed baklava. The flaky packet is filled with a light feta and ricotta mixture, topped with toasted sesame seeds, and drizzled with a fragrant thyme honey. A trio of well-seared chicken meatballs ($10) arrived juicy and intensely flavored, but they also were overworked and dense. Diamantis is no stranger to the kitchen, working the range at fine-dining establishments like Johnny's and Mosaica. That talent shows from the way he handles bronzini ($26), a popular Mediterranean sea bass. Two sizeable fillets arrive with crisp skin concealing sweet, delicate flesh. They are the centerpiece of a Mediterranean mélange of olives, potatoes, roasted peppers, dill, olive oil and grilled lemon. This is how you cook and serve fish.
Taki can also hold a master class in grilled meats. When I say that this out-of-the-way Greek restaurant in Avon Lake serves some of the best grilled lamb chops in Northeast Ohio, that's not hyperbole. Four bone-in chops ($27) are still sizzling from the grill when they hit the table. The meat is well seasoned on the outside and rosy within. I'd suggest picking them up by the bone and eating them like a lollipop, but you'll do that anyway. Al dente orzo is at the heart of creamy, cheesy, but not overly rich side dish, while sautéed escarole provides some much-appreciated greenery.
Other entrees are built around salmon, chicken, steak and pork, but it's the braised lamb shank dish that likely will lure me back to Avon. Well, that and another order of those amazing lamb chops.