Piato Estiatorio brings Greek food to the fore

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

Restaurant breaks free from the stodgy, same old, same old fare of competitors

Mia Stainsby

Alex Graffos is the owner and operator at Piato Estiatorio on West Fourth, which has raised the bar for Greek restaurants in Vancouver. Photograph by: Jenelle Schneider, Vancouver Sun


Overall 3 1/2

Food 3 1/2

Ambience 3 1/2

Service 3 1/2

1835 West Fourth Ave., 604-568-2929. Open for lunch and dinner, daily. www.piato.ca.

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars.

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A few weeks ago, we visited my husband’s irrepressibly opinionated uncle in Washington and took some take-out souvlaki for a visit over lunch. He was not amused. The beef was tough and he was absolutely right. I’d found the place on the Web; it came with huzzahs and I was led astray, all right? We heard about the tough meat for the remainder of the visit and I do believe the owner of the restaurant probably did, too. One quarter Greek, the uncle has strong opinions on what Greek food should be and pressed me to write a scathing review of it.

I wonder what he’d say about Piato Estiatorio (“plate restaurant,” if directly translated) in Kitsilano?

It’s not the usual cookie-cutter Greek restaurant; it’s climbed out of the ditch Greek food has been stuck in since the ’70s in Vancouver. I’ve always held out for Harry Kambolis (of C, Raincity, Nu restaurants and possessor of Greek genes) or his mother (a very good Greek cook and restaurant operator) to do something about it.

I still hope the Kambolis family steps up to the plate, but in the meantime, we have Piato where checkerboard tablecloths, white-washed walls with azure trim and creeping ivy have been eschewed for a clean, modern look and yes, there are photographs of Greece on the wall, but these are more arty, in black and white.

Best of all, the food is not stodgy or the same old, same old fare. The menu circles around the old standards but dishes are tweaked and lighter; and there are surprises like mini-gyros filled with pulled short rib and tomato salsa; marinated ahi tuna with citrus fennel slaw; salt cod with skordalia and roasted beets; “Greek” fries; and zucchini and eggplant chips.

The cooking is family style — but a family of good cooks. A pleasant surprise was the wine list which featured about 17 Greek wines or about half the list. Yes, Boutari is on the roll call but it’s a much better grade than what the LCB had us believing to be typical of Greek wines.

Only one dish over two visits got a failing grade. That was grilled quail marinated in tzatziki, a wizened and unappealing dish. But Piato does the best tzatziki ever, so rich and creamy. We tried both the trio of dips (tzatziki, white bean hummus, and spicy feta) and a taster trio of soups (white bean, lentil with Greek spices, and avgolemono), which for $7 you can’t beat.

Southern spinach pie is different from the usual spanokopita — it’s called saites and is flatter and denser than the one we know. Grilled calamari were tender and fresh; bacalao (salt cod with skordalia and roasted beets) was tasty and the skordalia wasn’t made to fight off vampires. The garlic is tame. Vegetarian moussaka is assembled with a light touch. As for the pork and lamb souvlaki, I think the uncle would give it a passing grade but not a high one. It was a messy arrangement with the souvlaki skewers sitting atop tzatziki and tomato salsa which sat atop quartered pita which was pale and soft.

The drizzles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar on some of the plates were good quality, tasty products. For dessert, the rice pudding had a seductive creamy texture, but fussy me, I wanted just another note, maybe of vanilla or cardamom or even honey. Galaktoboureko is fancied up bougatsa. While you can eat bougatsa, with custard enveloped in protective layers of phyllo, walking down the street, you need a fork to eat this dessert with the big long name — it’s all about the custard.

Actually, I don’t know if the uncle would be happy here. There’s just not enough to complain about.

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