Greek Isles is owned and run by the former staff of Nikos, in Brookline Village, which lost its lease. I had previously reviewed Nikos as one of the surprisingly few Greek-American restaurants that stuck to Greek food. Fortunately, Greek Isles, on the neat little restaurant row that runs parallel to Boylston Street in the Fenway, continues in that general style. However, the kitchen here must be smaller, and is perhaps differently equipped, since the kebabs have taken a surprising downturn (no grill?), while the fried appetizers and French fries are now spectacularly crisp and fresh (new fry machine?). The new restaurant is smaller in general, and has reduced service, but with some careful selections it can still whip up superb take-out or an excellent, inexpensive sit-down dinner for those at its seven tables and counter seating.
Appetizers here are a strong course, and some diners will do well to go straight for the appetizer plate ($12.75). The strength of this offering is the fried-zucchini sticks ($4.50/à la carte), especially when dipped in tzatziki ($3.95/à la carte) — one of the freshest versions of this cucumber-garlic-yogurt dish around. The skordalia ($3.95/à la carte), with even more garlic in whipped potatoes, is also an excellent dip, but I found that the taramosalata ($3.95/à la carte) — codfish roe whipped into a starch (usually bread crumbs, but here possibly more potato) — lacked oomph. You can also dip slices of fried eggplant ($4.50/à la carte) — good but a little greasy — and triangles of fresh pita in the various spreads.
What, no grape leaves on the appetizer plate? You have to order them separately ($6.75/small; $12.95/large), because they come hot under a light cream sauce. The large plate has 12 leaves, well stuffed with a piquant meat and rice mix — about as good as I’ve had them.
Soup is another appetizer possibility. The lentil option ($3.25) is a nice combination of slightly dry and earthy (but fully cooked) lentils with slightly-sweet tomato stock. And white-bean soup ($3.25) is a more conventional tomato-bean bowl — both bowls are a good size — but again, the white beans are fully cooked, something rare in restaurants these days.
Now, the kebab situation. This was a real strength of Nikos’s, but the kebabs I tried on two visits to Greek Isles were of chain-barbecue quality: they seemed to be overdone to the point of falling apart, but lacked flavor (were they pre-poached?). The best option here may be the lamb kebab ($14), which retains some of the lamb flavor and seems to have been marinated a little. They’re not like the old Nikos kebabs, but still pretty good, especially in the lunch portion, which brings one skewer’s worth of meat de-skewered and rolled into a pita with onions, tomato, and some of that terrific fresh tzatziki. The dinner portion gives you two skewers, a Greek side salad, and two other sides. The beef kebab ($13) also had some nice flavor, but was very overdone and dried out on my visit. The chicken kebab ($13) was not so tasty, dry, and overdone.
The gyro, on the other hand, ($11.25; $8.25/on a Greek salad; $7.95/on a garden salad; $7.95/lunch sandwich) has a nice crust and full flavor that complements the rotisserie-roasted meatloaf of lamb and beef, which is sliced down the crust periodically to give every piece a spot of brown. This is one of the spicier gyro mixes I’ve had, too.
Baked dishes are as good as always, which, in the case of the baked lamb ($12.95), is very good. A big lamb shank that’s falling off the bone is a perfect winter entrée. The moussaka ($10.95) here is a large square of nicely layered ground beef, topped with potato, eggplant, and baked custard with cheese on top. The vegetarian moussaka ($10.95) is much the same — perhaps better, if you like eggplant in this combination as much as I do. Pastitsio ($9.95), meanwhile, substitutes ziti for the vegetables, and uses more sweet spice in the custard layer. The version here is nicely put together and not too greasy, but this is a show-off dish in Greek-American homes, so I’d like to see the chefs be more creative with this plate.
Zouzoukakia ($9.50), elongated meatballs, are served in the clove- or allspice-heavy tomato sauce that is common at many New England Greek restaurants. It has a beefier flavor than the gyro, but is also a bit peppery. Of the side dishes ($3, if you aren’t having an entrée), you really shouldn’t miss the French fries. Greek Isles has some of the crispest and most addictive fries around; they completely trump the mashed potatoes, which are whipped but not special, and even the rice pilaf, which is simple baked rice with a bit of tomato sauce. Green beans ($3) are done in the classic Greek style: overcooked in a tomato sauce and full of flavor. Mixed vegetables ($3), however, are just overcooked.
Most of the beverages here come in bottles, so you can’t save by drinking water ($1.85). Another disappointment: the Greek coffee ($3) was relatively thin, with barely enough grounds to swirl and invert for fortune-telling.
Desserts, however, are very good — especially for the price. Milfei ($4.50), which is a kind of éclair-loaf stuffed with two layers of pastry cream, is a new favorite of mine. Galaktoboureko ($3.50), a simple custard pie, is served hot; and rice pudding ($3.50) comes with a little too much cinnamon dust, but that’s no big issue. The baklava ($3.50) here is about double the usual size, and not so sweet. Still, the sleeper choice is definitely Greek yogurt ($3.75), served plain or with honey.
Service at Greek Isles is intended to be somewhat like a cafeteria: you go up to a lectern to place your order, bring the food back, and bus your own table. In practice, large parties that order a lot of food receive some table service. And the tableware is real stuff, so you essentially get a restaurant-style meal once you’re sitting down.
The restaurant features ochre walls, black café tables, cherry-stained chairs, a few pink-granite shelves, a plasma TV, a nice fake frieze from the old restaurant, and improbable tourist seascapes. It’s Spartan for a sit-down restaurant, but Olympian for a cafeteria/take-out place.
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