The woman at the counter was a regular
at Helios, a Greek restaurant masquerading as a coffee shop in
Park Slope. That’s probably why, after tasting her appetizer,
she was comfortable saying, "This is the best f**king sausage
I’ve ever had," a comment that elicited a roar of laughter
from co-owner Aristos Tzammos.
Tzammos is used to surprised diners. The cafe he opened as Elio’s with partner Pete Lekkas (co-owner of Elia in Bay Ridge) in July, and renamed Helios in February (due to a conflict with a long established Elio’s in Manhattan), is often mistaken for a standard burger and sandwich place.
A quick glance into the eatery during the day, where a long tiled counter is visible from the street, would confirm the notion. There are diner-style sandwiches, a few salads, and hamburgers on the menu, too. But a closer inspection of the decor and dishes reveals the cafe’s sophisticated flip side.
The corner spot off Sixth Avenue is ringed with tall windows; its walls are a deep persimmon; the tables are covered with burgundy clothes; and the silverware is heavier than you’d expect to find in a casual place.
And Tzammos insists on fresh flowers. At the door is a deep blue pot filled with magenta azaleas, and the dark tiled counter is topped with watering cans that hold fragrant deep pink and white peonies. Looking inside the windows at night, the restaurant could be mistaken for a candlelit flower shop.
After 5 pm, meze, the Greek form of tapas, are available. The recipes Tzammos employs for the hors d’oeuvres and entrees are based on his grandmother Anna’s cooking.
"She kept things simple, so I keep things simple," he says. "She believed that with great ingredients you don’t need a lot of frills. I use great products, too."
His boast is justified. Order an assortment of three homemade spreads, and each will taste clean and lightly seasoned with fresh herbs. The eggplant dip has the zing of lemon and the astringency of fresh parsley. The yogurt used for the cucumber dip is as thick as sour cream, fragrant with fresh mint and encircled with deep green extra virgin olive oil. And a spread made with feta and red pepper is creamy with just a touch of salt. All are delicious heaped atop triangles of warm pita bread.
There are two Greek wines - one white and one red - on the menu; both are acceptable with the dishes. A selection of eight international beers makes better partners.
About that sausage: I’ve had too many great sausages to second the counter-patron’s praise, but I will say the "loukaniko," made of pork seasoned with oregano, black pepper and orange peel, is up there with the best.
Helios’s souvlaki is made fresh, not hacked from a rotating mound of compressed meat. The lamb sandwich is rare and well spiced. Slices of tomatoes are ripe and crisp while red onion adds crunch. Order the lamb as a souvlaki platter, and the juicy cubes of meat will arrive atop buttery rice mixed with parsley and served with a little dish of the lush yogurt.
The pieces of chicken in the "kota lemonati," taste of tart citrus juice and oregano. Only Bell & Evan’s birds are used and the difference in that poultry and others is pronounced. Like the lamb, the meat is served with rice.
Orders for Helios’s burgers stream in via telephone faster than the deliveryman can deposit them. The Angus beef patties are big but not cumbersome and served on a house-made brioche roll that isn’t so dense it obscures the meat. Order it medium rare, and it’s served as requested. Lift it to your mouth and juice will run down your hand. The accompanying fries are freshly cut, salty and sprinkled with oregano.
The dessert menu features cakes and tarts that are better than most of the overwrought finales I’ve encountered lately. There’s a buttery, light, apple crumb tart fragrant with nutmeg. A slice of almond tart with a thin crown of raspberry jam was sweet but not cloying, with a brittle, buttery crust. Tzammos uses only organically grown beans for his rich, dark coffee. Request a cup in the evening, and a French press, ready to be poured, will be delivered to the table.
Tzammos isn’t trying to put a spin on Greek cuisine. He wants to serve dishes the way his grandmother liked them: treating fresh, seasonal ingredients without a lot of fanfare so their goodness can shine through. It’s a classic concept that more ambitious chefs sometimes forget.
Helios (82 Sixth Ave. at St. Marks Avenue in Park Slope) accepts cash only. Entrees: $11-$15. Serves lunch and dinner daily. Brunch is available all day on the weekends. For information, call (718) 783-0033.
©2006 Community News Group
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