Louie Alexakis grew up eating and cooking Greek food at the apron strings of his mother and grandmother. He took his love for all things oregano, lamb and eggplant, and set up shop on the North Shore where he goes to great lengths to recreate those taste memories as a kid.
There are no waiters yelling "Opaa!" over flaming cheese, and the wine is imported from top-quality Greek producers, not the usual Retsina from the 1970s. In short, the Greek cliches are absent at Avli Estiatorio, tucked into the back of the Laundry Mall in sleepy downtown Winnetka.
"I wanted to showcase newer Greek ideas and use real Greek products, so we cook everything to order, we don't have anything in our steam table other than sauces," said chef and owner Louie Alexakis. "We import honey, beans, herbs, preserves, and we use them in just about every dish we can."
His salad Cretan Dakos, for example, resembles an Italian panzanella: dried barley rusk bread is softened with a tomato-y dressing, then amplified with imported feta, tomatoes and torn basil.
"Dakos is the name of the rustic bread that's only from the island of Crete, and that bread is used in a variety of ways, but most famously as their literal salad," he said.
Alexakis also roasts eggplant, seasoning it with oregano and scooping it out into a saute pan, along with onions and homemade tomato sauce. Once fully-cooked, it's returned to the shell, then topped with crumbled feta and baked.
"The eggplant is my great-grandmother's recipe. It's a stuffed eggplant, its name in Greek, papoutsakia, means 'little shoe,' as that's literally what it looks like," Alexakis said.
Lamb is, of course, a mainstay here, whether it's formed by hand for the homemade gyros or cut into cubes and sauteed along with oregano and rosemary, then baked slowly with onions and tomatoes, plus olive oil and white wine, topped off with a bit of shredded feta and served in a sturdy crock. A Poseidon Plate offers simply-grilled calamari, shrimp and octopus, with a Mediterranean kiss of Greek olive oil and lemon.
The desserts are remarkable: a Santorini dessert wine flavors the Belgian chocolate lava cake, paired with Greed sour cherries, while Greek dried figs, currants and orange peel add lustre to a simple bread pudding. The silent star, however, is the yogurt mousse. It's a sweet-tart-creamy ending to a Greek feast.
"You'll blend in a little bit of Greek honey that's been poached with figs, so you give it this really original flavor," Alexakis said.
As the weather gets warmer, Alexakis will be able to open up his magnificent outdoor patio -- one of the toughest tables to get on the North Shore in the summertime.
566 Chestnut St # 11, Winnetka