Greek food with a twist in Chicago

June 12, 2009 (CHICAGO)

He's found one in particular.

For years, Greek food in Chicago has been fairly predictable: gyros, lamb, and maybe a few dips or spreads and a spanakopita for good measure. But Lincoln Square's Mythos changed the playing field last year, and Wicker Park's Taxim is doing the same by offering modern interpretations of classic Greek regional dishes.

Greek food never had this kind of ambassador. When was the last time you saw homemade pita, lentils or fresh ramps on a menu down on Halsted? At the new Taxi, located near the nexus of Bucktown and Wicker Park, the emphasis is on regional Greek cooking.

"In Constantinople and Istanbul, they had a huge variety of ingredients at their disposal. It was a crossroads; it was the end of the Silk Road. It was where the spices came through. So, a lot of different flavors," said David Schneider, the chef at Taxim.

The meze - or small plates - are like nothing you'd find on Halsted. Fava beans and young pods are tossed with rich lamb that's been pulled and stewed. Homemade Greek yogurt provides a tangy balance. Eggplants are charred on the grill until blackened and blistered. The skins are then peeled. The flesh is finely chopped, tossed with some minced garlic, then mixed with a sesame-rich tahini sauce, plus olive oil.

Piperies begin with roasted peppers, tossed with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Briny capers are off-set by the sweet/salty shards of grated kefalograveria cheese. It's a far cry from the usual feta.

"There's feta from goat's milk, feta from sheep's milk, and there's also a barrel-aged feta. So, there's a lot of different kinds of feta cheese," said Schneider.

Some of that feta ends up in the rampopita, which is a delicious, savory baked pie, loaded with fresh ramps and salty feta, topped with black sesame seeds.

From the interesting, regional red wines, to the homemade yogurt, you know instantly this is not your traditional Greek dining experience.

"That's something that's very classic Greek cooking, especially the Greeks from Asia Minor, is yogurt. Yogurt is a staple. It's a sauce. It's the base for foods. You strain it, you make cheeses from it, you freeze it to make frozen yogurt," Schneider said.

And in a few weeks, Taxim will offer daytime service featuring the house-made yogurt with fruits and nuts, plus pastries, small plates of savory food and a full coffee bar.

Incidentally, another new, modern Greek restaurant called Avli is slated to open in Winnetka in late July.

1558 N. Milwaukee Ave.

2030 W. Montrose Ave.

Avli will open in mid-July
566 Chestnut St.

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