If any cuisine is misunderstood, or even overlooked, it's Greek food. Locals in Philadelphia and beyond know and have eaten what they believe are the traditions of the form: kabobs, falafel, moussaka, souvlaki, gyros, hummus. "Even Greek salads, all the clichés," says Opa chef Bobby Saritsoglou with a laugh when considering what people dine on and think of as Mediterranean or southeastern European cuisine. However, Greek cuisine is far more delicate, daring and yes, modern—for all its ancient history as the birthplace of Western civilization—in its newest iterations. "There's so much more to be experienced," claims Saritsoglou, pointing out the hidden complexities and the rarely known ingredients and techniques of Greek cooking.
Presently, in Philadelphia, there's a minor boom in Greek restaurants in that two of its time-tested originals—South Street Souvlaki and Kanella—have expanded their properties and menus, while four-year-old Opa hired the innovative young Saritsoglou, whose resume includes the Michelin-starred Varoulko in Athens.
Encounter a lighter-than-air touch and more of a tapas vibe than one might have experienced previously with "traditional" dishes. Spanikopita (here done in a fluffy house-made filo dough and layered with spinach, barrel-aged feta cheese and kefalotiri) and Dolmades (grape-leaf cigars stuffed with ground beef and walnuts) are gently re-envisioned as hearty appetizers. Grilled chicken or swordfish Souvlakia is lovingly marinated and crispy-skinned. Everything here is house-made: the egg pasta of the Hilopites filled with sea urchin and gulf shrimp; the soft, oiled slices of pita bread; the flashiest appetizer, the flaming, flambéed Saganaki of kasseri cheese and fig compote. Rather than use traditional chickpeas in its hummus recipe, Opa puts a rich fava bean spin on the popular puree. "When people talk about the farm-to-table concept, we laugh," says Saritsoglou. "Greeks have never had it any other way." You can taste that in the fresh zucchini, radishes, snap peas and sweet corn that fills the orzo, or the rich, dense chicken done in mustard sauce, the fresh sausage, and the bifteki and soutzoukakia that dots the meat board entrée. If you're looking for a surprise, you'll find it in Opa's opulent house-cured charcuterie plate filled with olives and cauliflower in beet juice. "Most people don't think we have charcuterie, but Greeks have done this forever," says Saritsoglou. "That's what Greek food is, full of adventure and surprise."
1311 Sansom St., 215.545.0170
For Kanella, the Greek culinary adventure continues as it moves from its longtime Center City digs to the South Street area. The restaurant and its family of chefs cook what is known as Greek-Cypriot fare prepared family-style with a hearty mezé to start; an array of cold, spicy kalamata, melitzanosalata (eggplant salad), a selection of Greek sheep, goat, or cow cheeses and meatball keftédes. Like Opa, Kanella makes all of its own baked goods, and with a new open kitchen and large charcoal grill can put simple flourishes to Mediterranean fish dishes (smelts, swordfish and whole branzino), chicken and beef entrees, and more esoteric Greek country fare such as rabbit leg and goat.
757 S. Front St., 215.922.1773
South Street Souvlaki
The new iteration of South Street Souvlaki is very much like the old one, itself a nearly-40-year-old culinary institution where opera door windows open to the street so that passersby can grab a quick gyro stuffed with thin-sliced beef, tomatoes and yogurty sauce. Of course, there is a handsome array of falafel, soups and vegetarian items such as Prasopita (fresh leeks and feta cheese pie) or the Turlu fresh veggie stew. The Imam Baldi—sauteed onions and tomatoes stuffed in eggplant and baked with pignoli nuts—is a must-order. Yet, the breaking news here is the new private white linen-dressed dining room and lounge on its second floor, called The Bistro Above South Street Souvlaki, that truly charms. The separate space has the feel of a romantic, intimate environment with Athenian tastes to match. Its own menu advertises fish-centric appetizers like octopus and salmon over dill mashed potatoes and cream caper sauce and entrees like lamb chop over white bean puree and sautéed Greek spinach.
509 South St., 215.925.3026
"I really hope that diners in Philly or those who visit Philly get a chance to experience all the diversity and flavors of modern Greek food beyond the old stereotypes and the dishes they're used to," says Saritsoglou, talking not just about his own restaurant but of Greek cooking in general. "I think tasting it now will really open diners up to new experiences."