When Banura occupied a tiny space near the canal at 56th and Illinois, it was a firm favorite with locals and NUVO employees alike. Offering a range of modestly priced, well-prepared dishes of Greek origins, Banura held its own from 1982 until just a couple of years ago. After a lengthy hiatus, this popular old establishment is back in a new location at the northwest corner of 79th and Michigan.
In the old days, Banura's size and hole-in-the-wall atmosphere made for fun, inexpensive dining. The new location is, sad to say, barn-like and cold. Occupying a brand new strip center storefront, it has about as much charm as the liquor stores and laundromats that surround it, resembling from the outside so many faceless and impersonal Chinese takeaways that dot the urban landscape from one side of town to the other.
Inside, it's not a terribly inviting place either, with neat rows of tables and chairs arranged cafeteria-like and hard fluorescent lighting that flattens out the minimal dÈcor. If the designers were going for an appropriately Spartan look, they achieved it in spades. To die-hard fans of Banura, I'm sure that none of this is of importance, because it's the food that counts. Who cares if the place is like an airplane hangar on a Sunday if the grub's good, right? Unfortunately, I can't really find a lot that's positive to say on that score, either.
Starting with a few appetizers, a friend and I recently discovered that, much as we really wanted to enjoy it, there was very little on the menu that appealed. Beginning with the small maza plate (known elsewhere as mezzes, I recall), we were served, for $5.50, very decent portions of hummus, tabouli, baba ghannooj, feta cheese, black olives and pita bread. If size were what mattered, then I would have no complaints about this dish. Unfortunately, the quality of this generous plate was significantly under par.
Now hummus, if I'm not mistaken, is a thickish paste made from chickpeas, olive oil, tahini and garlic. It should have a slightly mealy texture. It should taste garlicky. The hummus served on this occasion bore little resemblance to any I have ever eaten before and, with luck, to any that I will eat in the future. For a start, the texture was slippery and oily. In fact, so little did it resemble hummus that I had to look at the menu a second time to see if we had been served taramasalata, a salted cod roe patÈ, by accident. Oddly there is no tarama on the menu, so this could not have been the case. Anyway, bad hummus is inexcusable in a Greek restaurant, so no points there.
On the same plate, the tabouli salad was serviceable, but the baba ghannooj was barely recognizable as such, being anonymous and lifeless, lacking the depth of flavor and zip that I usually expect in this eggplant-based dish.
Next we tried the saganaki, which consists of cheese flamed in alcohol and doused with lemon juice. This was very decent, although the texture of the cheese was considerably more stringy than I am used to, and the flavor decidedly less salty. I'm sure, however, that it was quite authentic in every other way.
Aiming straight down the middle of the road, my friend and I next ordered the evening's special, the gyros platter ($9.50), and the combo dinner ($13.90), which consisted of spanokopita, tyropita and moussaka. Both dishes were served with rice and green beans, arguably our favorite components of the evening's meal. The gyros plate consisted of four thinly sliced strips of gyros meat, sour cream, onions and pita bread, as well as a strange little side salad, the contents of which I was hard pressed to identify. It looked as if there might be avocado present, but I wasn't quite sure. The gyros meat was dry, and it snapped rather than bent when I tried to fold it over, suggesting that it may have been sitting around just a little bit too long.
As for the rest, the spanokopita and tyropita were distinguishable by the presence of some spinach in the former. Both had the texture of cream puffs, and oozed when cut into, again not really a characteristic of the real thing, in my experience. The cheese seemed too creamy to be simply feta, and lacked the tang of that typically crumbly cheese. The moussaka, made with beef rather than lamb, was heavy on the bÈchamel, light on the eggplant and short on flavor. All in all, this was a disappointing round of dishes.
In the restaurant's favor, the service was happy, enthusiastic and friendly, if not exactly polished. There is a casual, happy-go-lucky feel to the place that is not unappealing, but just not in keeping with fine dining. Much as I love to support independent dining in this town, it's hard to say much in favor of a place that really seems to be on cruise control.
I get a strong impression that Banura is setting a lot of store by nostalgia for the old days and the relative tolerance of its clientele. That"s all well and good, but I would suggest that, should you want to eat Greek food prepared with care, try the Greek Islands or the recently opened Bosphorus (which, although Turkish, is very similar indeed). Opa!
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