Authentic Greek food breaks the barriers to Greek wines
Ten years ago, when great Greek wine was beginning to hit these shores, you’d have to go to New York to get the full experience. An all-Greek wine list was something you could pull off only in a city where being outrageous is a positive attribute, and competition is fierce when it comes to pouring something your neighbor hasn’t already discovered. Today, one of the largest Greek wine lists in the US is in Houston, Texas, second only to Kamal Kouiri’s at Molyvos in NYC—which is arguably the deepest in the world. Another standout has taken shape in Vermont, virgin territory for Greek wine, as was Seattle, now becoming a hub for Greek winemakers thanks to Omega’s extensive list.
What’s changed? There’s the economic crisis in Greece, which has pushed winemakers to focus on outside markets. But there’s also a more essential change here in the States. While there are still plenty of diner cooks slinging four inch-high bricks of spanakopita (and they can be delicious)—as well as chefs at glittering cathedrals of seafood and high-concept Greek food—a new crop of restaurateurs is presenting an alternate path that’s truer to the food in Greece than anything we’ve experienced on this side of the Atlantic.
This is the third wave: chefs and restaurateurs who consider Greek wine and food together, as naturally as it happens at home in Thessaloniki or Sparta.
“When I was a kid, my grandpa had a vineyard, making his own wine and selling some to tavernas in the village. He also worked scraping barrels—big ones, so big you could literally get into them. I helped him: I would sit on top of the barrel with a candle so that he could see, and so that he knew when he ran out of oxygen. When the candle went out, we knew it was time for him to get out. So maybe all the fumes from the scrapings got into my head.”
It wasn’t until years later, when he landed in Seattle and began working in restaurants, that Thomas Soukakos got back into wine. “It was interesting: Stelios Boutaris—of the Boutari wine family in Greece—came here back then, and I said to him, ‘I think about opening a Greek restaurant here because there isn’t any,’ and Stelios said, ‘We’ll support you. I’ll send you some info, get you some wines, help you find others.’ I thought ‘Oh, sure; he’s going to go back and forget all about me.’ But two weeks later, a big box arrived, filled with cookbooks, recipes, recommendations for wines. It was a jump start; I began to feel like this was my calling here, to bring Greek food and wine all the way to the Northwest.”
When he opened El Greco in 1994, Greek wines were barely in the picture in the US, and Greek food wasn’t much known in Seattle. “I had to do a lot of convincing,” Soukakos says. It worked, as he eventually sold El Greco and now runs two branches of the popular Vios Café, focused on Greek standards like souvlaki. Yet he wanted to do more. On his trips home, he’d visit wineries—“ you go, it’s a hole in the wall, and they give you a little taste, their eyes wide open, waiting for your response,” he says. “You see all the passion and effort and excitement— and you see how hard it is during the economic crisis.”
“Greek cuisine doesn’t have to stay centuries behind.” —Thomas Soukakos
As for food back in Greece, he found interpretations that are much more pliant and reactive to time and place than what we are used to in the States.
“I get inspired by seeing how far Greek cuisine can go,” Soukakos says. So last February, he opened Omega Ouzeri, an airy, modern place with wine bottles lining the walls, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Every two weeks, an 18-wheeler arrives from New York. “It comes right up to the restaurant, and we unload honeys, pistachios, spices, olive oil, cured meats, cheeses, trahana, big barrels of feta,” Soukakos says. He sources other ingredients locally: This spring, the fritters featured fresh peas with tahini sauce and manouri, a mild sheep’s milk cheese; pickled rhubarb garnished the haloumi. “Greek cuisine doesn’t have to stay centuries behind,” he believes.
He wasn’t as confident that he could manage the same level of commitment with Greek wine. “But Sotiris Bafitis, an old friend who’s done some importing, said, ‘Go all Greek. I’ll help you; we’ll talk to people, get you distributors.’” Bafitis and Steven Brown, a Seattle sommelier and retailer, helped Soukakos make connections, and now his list has over 100 Greek labels. His fear of not being able to source the wines has disappeared: “Five years ago we never had so many Greek vintners visit Seattle,” he says. “For me, it is huge, to have this ability to trace Greece, from north to south, to Crete to Ikaria to Cefalonia and more, through the wines.”
The list is also essential, he finds, to getting the full effect of the restaurant. “I can give you a plate of smoked eel and pickles; fine. With a glass of fresh, pure, crisp wine,”—maybe a Gai’a Santorini, or Afianes Begleri, he suggests—“you go, ‘Wow!’ We can give you a taste of Greece.”
1529 14th Ave., Seattle, WA; 206-257-4515, omegaouzeri.com
This article first appeared in W&S August 2016.