Move Over, Meiji-En and Assaggio, Make Room For Eleni’s

The Dining Report – Eleni’s Estiatorio – A Greek Tragedy In Never-Ending Acts

featuring added commentary by Marnie and Adele

When people think of “Third World” countries, Greece probably isn’t the first place that pops into their head. Beautiful ocean scapes with dazzling white churches and intense blue roofs (which incidentally, is usually a picture of Santorini,) olive groves, ocean breezes, endless antiquities, and in those BC times, beautiful Greeks frolicking amongst gods wearing scanty clothing, this is our general impression of Greece.

But economically, I believe Greece is still ranked as a third world country, and after years of pleading, I’m not certain if they have yet been invited to join the EU. I mention this because when you visit Greece you realize that things there don’t often function up to “western standards,” and many people live in poverty, even in wonderful resort environments where tourism abounds. But enough on poverty, after all, this is a “fun” website, right?

The malfunctions are worth mentioning again, however, as they have much to do with our recent evening at Eleni’s Estiatorio. I remember staying in this beautiful brand new hotel on a hill overlooking the port and windmills of Mykonos, and trying to open the large glass door between our room and the deck over the pool, and having the entire door, as well as part of the door frame, come off in our hands, sort of like one of those candid camera moments (put it back, and hope no one notices.) Or being picked up at the port of Santorini by the owner of the hotel we were staying at in Fira, and being afraid to even get into his car, this tiny old, beat up Renault where all of our immense luggage was strapped to the roof with slender little bungee cords, and where we barely made it up the steep winding road dodging water trucks, gigantic buses, and struggling donkies ridden by tourists between ferry and hotel. Many of the rural roads on the islands look like they were probably paved using a garden rake, and if you rent a car you could get an old beat up Izuzu (hey, what happened to Izuzu anyway?) with no top, no seat belts, about one door with a handle that actually works (it’s good there’s no roof,) and maybe if you are lucky that day, some working headlights (but don’t count on windshield wipers. I remember during a cloud burst trying to clear a peekaboo spot with a candy wrapper or something.) And although I’m not exactly famously agile, I don’t remember falling down quite so many times in a foreign country (although Mexico is close,) because of bad footing below I was always tumbling down amongst the antiquities, and many tourist areas feature gigantic drop offs without ropes where you could tumble to your death at any moment.

To be honest, though, it doesn’t really matter, because Greece is a really fun sort of country, it just doesn’t function particularly smoothly. It’s all about sun, and relaxation, and joy, and embracing life. Greek men have terrible tempers, and even if they barely know you they will scream and swear at you, but they are also intensely kind, and will befriend you at a moment’s notice (once their temper tantrum has ended.) They dance and sing and gulp Ouzo and throw plates. What’s not to like about that?

It was relatively amazing to me when I was in Greece, how many people knew the West Coast, and Oregon, and Portland in particular. Most Greeks under the age of 60 seem to speak English, and they always ask where you are from. I met countless people who had visited Portland, and loved it. I mention this because by and large, we have so little Greek food and fewer decent Greek restaurants. Sure, we roll out that Greek Festival once a year, but are there really that many Greeks in Portland? And if they are here, where do they eat? Surely they don’t eat at home all the time. It’s easy to give it two seconds thought and then name off most of the major Greek places in Portland, there’s Alexis, Jimmy Maks, Berbati’s, Demetri’s, that scary Deli on E. Burnside, the Greek Cuisina (yikes!!!) and the two Eleni outposts. Am I missing anything? Why can’t we have better Greek food here, since Portland seems to be a place so many Grecian people know and love. WHY, WHY. WHY!!!!

Middling food or not, off Restaurant Roulette went to the second Eleni’s outpost for our most recent dinner, this being Eleni’s Estiatorio in Sellwood. In November of 2006 I had taken a group of 13 to Eleni’s Pholoxenia in the Pearl, and while only about two thirds of the people had enjoyed their food, the dinner went relatively well, the kitchen was a bit spotty delivering appetizers, and service was only moderate, but 13 can be quite a table full on a busy Friday night. I thought for my second Greek RR dinner I would do the other Eleni’s, after all, where else could I really take my discerning folk? Jimmy Maks is more of a nightclub, Demetri’s is tiny, Alexis is a dump (a famous dump though,) and the Greek Cuisina, don’t even joke about things like that. I’d always heard that Philoxenia had the better food, and Eleni’s the more pleasant atmosphere, but to be honest, I found that comment a tad confusing. Both restaurants have the same owner, and they share a menu, why would one be so superior to the other when it came to level of food quality?The night started off great, everyone arrived nice and early, (I was second to last, 10 minutes before reservation time,) our table was empty and waiting for us, and we were a lively group of 10 with two eager new faces (thanks Krissy and Desiree,) some wonderful former members who I had not seen in months (we really missed you Pat and Regis,) discerning old pros like Bev, David and Adele, and that fun couple who everyone just loves to pieces, Marnie and Leo.

From the moment I arrived, I agreed that Eleni’s certainly has the more pleasant eating space of the two Touhouliotis restaurants.IMG_0088.JPGAlthough The Philoxenia space is elegant in its own way, it’s almost stark and bleak, with the black and white striped booths, the black walls, strange narrow floor plan, and heating issues (usually too hot or cold, just like the gallery space above it. I think the heating system in that building is pretty antiquated.) Eleni’s, although also featuring dark gray walls, had lovely bursts of red, eggplant and forest green, geometric lighting, and a much better space with a central entry and two decent sized dining rooms on each side. It’s dark and dramatic, but pleasantly so.

After the usual Chinese Fire-drill deciding who would sit where (as usual, your highness of food perched mid-table, screwing up all seating plans,) people got down to viewing the menu. I have the feeling fossilized menus dug up at Pompeii might be in better shape than the menu I got a hold of, it had certainly seen better days, and like several menus at the table, didn’t have the dressy cover like all the menus were supposed to have. It seems like Eleni needs to invest a few bucks in new menus. If you have two restaurants which feature the exact same menu items, and these rarely if ever change, you are probably not investing big bucks in printing like the places that have menus that change monthly, weekly, or even daily. Consequently, it seems reasonable that you could have an adequate supply of clean, matching menus (actually this is an unfortunate quirk of mine, if I have to view too much of a former diner’s food on my menu, I lose a good portion of my appetite. I don’t care if the menus are fancy, not everyone needs to have a masterpiece that costs $50,000 each like Fenouil, but please give me a clean menu, since after I touch the thing I will next be touching my food.) BIG DARK TYPE IS NICE TOO!

It certainly would have been nice on this evening, as I couldn’t see diddley. As many of you might have noticed, my eyesight tends to leave much to be desired, especially when a room is dark, and on this occasion I was feeling around under the table hoping for a seeing eye dog with no luck. Candles were shoved in my direction from other parts of the table, IMG_0071.JPGwhich helped about 2%, but then Leo kindly loaned me his dazzling little keychain flashlight, which helped considerably, as I was able to actually see words and numbers and everything. Why I bothered I’ll never know, as I ended up ordering the same two items I always order at Eleni’s restaurants. To be honest, I’m not great with Greek food. During the two plus weeks I acationed in Greece, I largely subsisted on pasta, chicken gyros, and gelato (the best coconut gelato ever.) I like certain things about Greek cooking, the olives, the spices, the cheeses, the squid, but I don’t enjoy lamb in any form, tomatoes do not make me happy in anything but some pasta sauces, (and I cannot stand stewed tomatoes,) and I’m not big on things like eggplant, except for the little Thai ones, so Greek food can be a battlefield for me.

But wait, I jump WAY ahead of myself, as food was still EONS away. Although we had not really had any service after manyminutes except for a harried looking waiter jogging by to tell us he would be with us in exactly one minute, make that two minutes, everyone had pretty much made serious pre-dinner drink selections, most people settling on red wines, Regis hoping for beer, Bev having her usual futile search for something Gold, and those of us in a truly festive mood wanting ouzo. Eventually, some plates heaped with nice big hunks of bread, olive oil, and blobs of olive tapenade were set at both ends of the table. The bread was pretty good, and someone asked me if I thought it was Greek in origin. I actually had a hard time remembering what the bread in Greece was like, not very good I think, so I truthfully replied that I thought that the bread was Grand Central in origin. Whatever decent local bakery it was from, it was vacuumed up like ants in front of an anteater, as it seemed we were all pretty hungry, and we had not even been offered drinks at this point. My only complaint about the bread presentation, since the olive oil and tapenade were just dumped into one end of the oval bread plate, it was hard for the five people per table end to each get their fair share of the oil and pureed olives unless you didn’t mind participating in massive double dipping.IMG_0089.JPG

Finally, the waiter made his approach, and it had been such a long wait, I was having a hard time remembering what he was there for. Finally, I looked at the brown butcher papered table in front of me, saw nothing cold and refreshing there, and figured he was there to take drink orders. As is my custom at Greek restaurants these days, I ordered a shot of cold ouzo. (There is a dispute as to how ouzo should be served, chilled or at room temperature, but I’m certainly in the chilled camp, I like my beverages cold.) After about 50 to 100 slices of bread, (and that was just me,) the drinks showed up and appetizers were ordered. My shot of ouzo was a milky white color, and as one is supposed to do (not like that cheater at the other end of the table having diluted ouzo on the rocks,) I slammed the burning licorice elixir down my throat in one gulp, and asked for another. To be honest, it didn’t really seem like the strongest ouzo ever, it was sort of like slamming down a mouth full of Smith Brother’s licorice cough drops, and after the initial tingle, I really didn’t feel much impact.

On my (and the waiter’s) strong recommendation, several portions of grilled calamari were ordered (okay, how was I to know I was dining amongst that sort of people, Calamari wusses) as well as at least one salad, some feta cheese with oregano, tomato, and olive oil, tzatziki, dolmathakla (stuffed grape leaves,) sagaunaki (pan fried cheese served in flaming cognac,) tiger prawns sauteed with roasted garlic in smoked paprika sauce, filo dough filled with cheeses and cooked in olive oil (kilitsounia,) and Meliznes Papoutzakla, which was small eggplant, stuffed with ground beef spiced with cinnamon, clove and garlic baked in tomato feta sauce. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It’s just too bad that Greek food doesn’t feature snails, as it would soon seem like that was who was preparing and delivering our food.

I don’t know how long it was before the first starter appeared, but at that point we were going through the bread like termites at the toothpick museum. After maybe half an hour or so (not half an hour after we sat down, but half an hour after the drinks came, which was about 30 minutes after we arrived at the table,) the first appetizer made its appearance. I say “the first appetizer” because after that they basically came out in a parade, one at a time, none too closely following those before it, for about an insanity generating, stomach distending hour. I don’t know how many times I heard someone at our table ask if they still had an appetizer coming, or if their order had gotten lost. Each time the waiter’s reply was “it’s coming,” each “it’s coming” terser than the next.

For some reason, most of the appetizers seemed to be going to the rather crazy west end of the table first, especially the object of my desire, the grilled calamari. The times I went to Philoxenia, everyone I was dining with loved the grilled calamari, and I felt no shame calling it my favorite calamari in town. As it happened on this evening though, all the the calamari was being delivered to the other end of the table, and they didn’t particularly like it. It was not at all what our new friend Desiree had hoped for in a squid dish, as she was certainly in the mood for less pepper, less lemon, and more breading, instead of naked squid lying there. Consequently, although I was not being brought my food, I was still getting a large portion of everyone else’s calamari, as they did not care for it. The problem with both the bread and olive oil and the calamari, and everyone sharing them, was that they were as oily and messy as all get out, and the butcher paper was becoming a nasty oil slicked mess; it looked like the Exxon Valdez had foundered through. The whole situation was almost as pleasant as my food stained menu, although Bev made sure to point out, most of the mess seemed to be surrounding me (I think the oil gremlins did that when I was in the restroom.)

With the sporadic food delivery, everyone’s sense of humor was becoming a tad edgy, and numerous people started making remarks about the food coming by donkey cart and such, or that the animals were still being corralled and done away with, delightful conversation of that nature. Our UK friend Adele (you know those verrry British sense of humours,) after desperately pleading to find out when she would see some of the food she had ordered was told the prerequisite “it’s coming” replied “and so is Christmas,” and even the harried (and hopefully embarrassed by this point) waiter had to laugh at that.

Other appetizers appeared in burps and gasps, most relatively well received, but their lateness sorely lamented. I was the last to receive my calamari, and by that time I had eaten so much of everyone else’s, my interest was minimal. The flambeed cheese was as good as always, as were the stuffed grape leaves and baked cheese in filo dough, although at this point I had no idea where these items were even coming from, or who had ordered them. Marnie’s just plain feta cheese drizzled with the olive oil and spices was extremely fresh tasting and some of the best feta I had ever had (although I really am lacking a feta fetish.) Finally, probably 30-45 minutes after the first starter was started by its eatee, Regis was delivered his stuffed eggplant with the cinnamon laced ground beef, and he found it exceptional. Although I didn’t notice when Pat’s starter arrived, or what it was, I pretty sure it was Leo’s Tiger prawns which brought up the tail end of the appetizers, and although probably famished in a big manly South American way, Leo, in his always gentlemanly fashion, offered to share his shrimp with all takers (hmmm.) They actually looked quite good, but by this point I was pretty started out, especially after about three portions of grilled calamari. I was beginning to feel like I should swim home.

By now it must have been about 8:45 or 9:00, and I would describe the mood at the table as pretty P.O.ed, but in a fun, this is killing me, but at least the company and conversation are lively P.O.ed kind of way. Although people always say I am not responsible, it makes me crazy when the dinners tumble to hell in a handbasket like this one, but at least I feel better when I see people interacting and laughing and joking. And at least most of the appetizers had been enjoyed.

Suddenly, in a rush, entrees started to be delivered to the table by multiple servers, and best of all, mine first. My Kota (a chicken dish) was placed before me, looking nicely grilled on its comfy bed or Orzo (that’s orzo, not ouzo, although by this time, the way things had gone, I could have used a bed of ouzo,) followed immediately by Marnie’s plate of Kota. This was actually a surprise and a first, as I don’t think Marnie and I have ever ordered the same entree, and although we were sitting right next to each other, we didn’t even know of the duplicity. A third person, Krissy, also ordered the Kota, so obviously it was a big seller this night. Soon after this, Leo and Regis were both delivered their rack of lambs, (err, racks of lamb perhaps,) and spent the rest of their dining time comparing their undercooked (and Leo thought recently defrosted,) portions of badly prepared baby sheep. Bev proclaimed herself the champion of ordering, as she found her Tiger prawns sauteed with peppers, zucchini and wild mushrooms served on orzo delicious. Desiree was overtaken by laughter when she was presented with her giant square of puff pastry (about 6″x6″) filled with lamb and other items, and found it quite good. The tiny piece of denuded asparagus placed on top seemed rather baffling, however, hardly your minimum daily requirement of vegetables, and it looked liked it could blow off at any time, it was so tiny. David got a plate of penne with tomato sauce that looked pretty pedestrian, and not at all amazingly, he proclaimed it pretty so-so. Pat did like her nightly special of Mousakka, although I suspect that Eleni’s tends to have Mousakka as every night’s special.

And Adele, our poor tortured food-knowing Adele, here’s what she had to say about her dining experience at Eleni’s …

I realise you have more material than you know what to do with for this review! I would have been more unhappy had it not been for the wonderful, fun company! It was certainly a Greek Tragedy in many acts! (yes, I stole the title from her.)For my part, I ended up with a glass of wine, fried cheese, a lot of bread and my entree, which came so late I just could not eat it. This was $37 in all, and by the time I left I had had almost nothing to eat since arriving before 7. I really had a hard time with the 18% service charge, which was unwarranted. They should have had two people on our table, and there was no excuse for bringing one tiny dish for one person at such long intervals. With regard to the food, I can only speak for myself, as one who lived in the Greek part of London (with a Greek guy!) for many years, amongst incredible neighbourhood restaurants. When I finally got my entree, which looked great and had a LOT of seafood in, it had absolutely no taste at all! The “broth” was water, and there was not a scrap of garlic, lemon, herbs or salt in it. I added garlic, tomato and cream the next day and lots of salt, and it ended up OK !I notice that Food Dude has refused to recommend Eleni’s until he pays another visit. Something is wrong between the servers and the kitchen. It is a pity as I loved the space, lighting and ambiance. There is a large kitchen right in the restaurant and there should not be the sort of time lapses we experienced. That food is actually very simple to prepare. When the owner asked if everything was OK, I just said, truthfully, that I had to wait so long for my entree I had lost my appetite; I did not have the heart to criticise the food!I must say I had a great evening with lots of laughs … Looking forward to the next exciting adventure! Thanks for a great job.

And thanks Adele, for sending me your astute comments. I love when people do that, it makes my job so much easier, that way I can keep my part of the review short (hey, I didn’t say in this lifetime, did I.) By the way, in case anyone is wondering what Adele ordered, the menu described it as “mussels, tiger prawns, wild salmon, calamari and sea scallops in a fennel saffron sauce.” IMG_0097.JPGUnfortunately, the worst was still to come with this dish, as it caused a complete ruckus when Adele had the nerve to ask if she could take her uneaten entree home with her. Various people were called to the table to discuss the issue, insisting that no suitable containers were available for such a request (I guess Eleni’s only carries a “Third World”selection of food containers.) Although I’ve often heard Adele request solid gold take-out containers with ruby bejewelment, on this night she was not being picky in the least, she just wanted to get the dang food home. Finally, Eleni came over, giving Adele the third degree about why here food was uneaten and needed to be transported home. Adele didn’t want to be unkind enough to mention she thought the whole concoction basically sucked (see her description of “the incident” above,) and I suppose the answer was sufficient to Eleni, as the dish reappeared in some weird squarish foil wrapped container looking like nuclear waste waiting for disposal (this was no Bistro Montage foil wrapped food art, I can tell you that.)IMG_0099.JPG

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!!! As I mentioned earlier, our oh so dear friend Marnie joined us at this dinner, and as I so depend on her doing, jotted off her remarks on our evening of a thousand fiascoes. Here those are ……

Just over a year ago, I attended my second RR event, Eleni’s Philoxenia, in the Pearl. With something like 13 of us, it was a boisterous and noisy affair, especially since the restaurant is relatively small and built more like a hallway than dining room. But the food, and service were good. Everything Leo and I ordered was flavorful, with thoughtfully prepared sides. The waitstaff was friendly, good humored and relatively efficient. In fact, we’ve been back several times since and continued to be pleased with our experience.It goes without saying that we were excited for Eleni’s Estiatorio. The restaurants should be twin sisters, like a Doublemint commercial, but instead, we seem to have gotten one Doublemint twin and one of those creepy dead sisters from The Shining. “Come play with us Danny, forever and ever and ever, and then maybe you’ll get your appetizer.”Frankly, I don’t fault the waiter. He was perhaps overly formal at times (“and for you, madam?”) but I doubt he had any say in how fast the kitchen could accommodate our orders. And I wouldn’t wish having to face our crew of wisecracking and ravenous patrons, on even a used car salesman. Still, when the waiter said to Adele that her “appetizers are coming,” and she responded the previously tittered over “So is Christmas,” I couldn’t help but chuckle. Truer words had not been spoken, as several of us watched our hungry dinner mates down their appetizers, while others of us pondered the wisdom of downing more wine on an empty stomach.For our part, Leo and I went with appetizers we hadn’t tried before and entrees that were old favorites from the good twin’s restaurant. To start I ordered the Feta Oreteko. It’s a simple dish, like the Greek version of the ubiquitous Italian Mozzarella salad. The feta was delicious, but I thought the tomatoes were a little tired and the oregano a little sparse. Still, I had no trouble cleaning my plate, and would consider ordering it again. Leo had the Garithes me Skortho (the aforementioned tiger prawns) which both of us thought were ok, though I found them a bit sweet for my taste. From the description, I would have expected the garlic and lemon to come through more strongly than they did. Again, it was not bad but perhaps not worth the wait. We did manage to score several large bites of other people’s grilled calamari, which we enjoyed. This is one of our favorite appetizers at Philoxenia, and its preparation remained largely consistent when tossed over the river to Sellwood.The waiter seemed to note the group’s dissatisfaction with the timing of the appetizers, because the entrees all seemed to come out together. This improvement in delivery may have come at a cost, though. Both Leo and Regis ordered the Rack of Lamb. Leo’s lamb was artfully presented, but mostly unnoteworthy. The lamb was perhaps a little overcooked on the outside and a bit dry yet a little undercooked in the center, as though it had not been fully thawed. We both agreed that his side dish, the pasta, was the best part of the meal he had ordered. Regis, on the other hand, received lamb that was nearly raw and his pasta suffered the same fate, taking al dente to al don’te. The best laid plans, of chefs and waiters, I guess.I ordered the Kota, a chicken dish I’ve enjoyed at Philoxenia before. I’d hardly have known it was the same dish. The chicken was dry and the orzo, which I often request an extra serving of in the Pearl, was flavorless and disappointing. Why oh why, Estiatoria, do you toy with my emotions only to dash them?As I lick my metaphoric wounds, after nights of crying soundlessly into my pillow, wondering if I can ever trust another Greek restaurant again, I think back on the good times. There was the talking and laughing with Regis and Pat, watching Jackie down shots of Ouzo, passing all our warm bread down to the other end of the table, and the wine, that wasn’t bad. So really, when you get right down to it, if you just took the restaurant out of the picture, I’d have been a perfect night.

There you have it, yet another satisfied customer. Regis also had another interesting comment on the food preparation, after sampling his barely cooked meat, he remarked that he thought the rule of thumb was, if your appetizer was good then your entree would be lousy, and visa-versa. My Calamari, and everyone else’s I ate seemed fine, (although the portion keeps getting smaller each time,) but I could have taken or left my chicken dish. I also found the service pretty marginal, although I’m sure no waiter handles a bad situation like this particularly well, at the end I found his civility quite waned, especially when he saw credit cards sitting next to the bill ($509, if anyone is keeping track.) Out of ten people we had two credit cards, which seemed like a pretty low average to me, but he acted like we were trying to pay in all pennies, or livestock, or something of that unpleasant nature. When everything was added up, he probably ended up with approximately a 25% tip, which is pretty shameful in a situation like this, but I’ve learned in the past, once everyone had paid their fair share, it’s really hard to figure out who to return moderate sums of overpayment to.

So yes, this dinner rivaled the lowities of Meiji-En and Assaggio for sheer badness. I’ve read good reviews of Eleni’s in the past, so how do I explain this total ineptitude? Could it be that 13th Street North of Tacoma Curse? Before it bit it, the week after we dined there (coincidence?) Assaggio shared this very same block, in fact, the two restaurants are in a line of storefronts that share a common block. Perhaps some creepy goings on from the gigantic mortuary down the street at play, unhappy unsettled souls unleashing themselves through really bad service on the dining patrons of Portland who dare to visit Sellwood. After all, everything has to have a logical explanation, right?