"Five years with Santorini Greek Kitchen
Critic’s log: Spring 2001. On a recent visit to Fountain Square, still a sleepy district of derelict storefronts, I was surprised to see flyers for a new restaurant called Santorini Greek Kitchen. Strolling over to Shelby Street, I peered into the place, definitely weeks away from opening, and wondered just what kind of an eatery it would be. Signs promised delivery — a novel amenity in a metropolis glutted with pizza and Chinese takeouts. But could such a cramped, shotgun restaurant calling itself a “kitchen” be more than a place to get a cheap lunch?
I don’t know if I ate there opening night, but I remember a cold, rainy June evening when I dragged a friend out for what I figured would be a typical Greek meal: hummus, maybe baba ghanoush, a couple of lamb dishes and baklava. Little did we know this place had aspirations well beyond its limited square footage. The menu was huge, the atmosphere soothing with cool blues and the service quirky and disarmingly familiar. In those early days, waitresses would nearly sit down at your table to share your dinner. Joking was definitely in order.
The biggest surprise was the quality of the food. No meal could commence without at least one appetizer — usually three or four. I often made a meal of them. Topping the list were the tomato balls — a misnomer for fritters neither shaped like balls nor composed entirely of tomatoes. Crisp and delicious with a tangy tzaziki sauce, these were a must on return visits. Another favorite was the tiropita — perhaps the best treatment of phyllo dough in town. Always tender and flaky with a delectable mix of cheeses — I couldn’t get enough of them. Calamari, baba ganoush and a hummus heavy with tahini were always good and always in huge, well-garnished servings.
If I could get beyond appetizers, soups, especially the velvety garlic mushroom soup, were consistently excellent, and salads generous, if standard. Entrées, too, packed bold flavors. I rarely passed up the leg of lamb, so garlicky it practically burned. Pastitsio and mousakka rivaled any Greek grandmother’s recipes, made especially good by careful seasoning in each layer. Briam with roasted eggplant and zucchini was an expert vegetarian dish.
If one thing was gratuitous, it was the portions of sides — all of them starchy but tasty: outsized lemony potato wedges, mounds of rice, enough green beans to feed a family. I remember an early visit when the plates were suddenly filled to the rim with this excess of carbohydrates. Delicious, yes, but necessary? One thing that was necessary was a big square of galaktabouriko, a sweet, polysyllabic custard wrapped in phyllo dough, sprinkled with cinnamon. Somehow I always found room.
Given all Santorini offered, it came as no surprise in 2003 when they moved to a bigger location on Prospect Street (not, as was rumored, to downtown). No longer would the bathroom be smack in the middle of the dining room. But would this place retain the familial charm, and, more importantly, the high quality, in roomier digs? In moving, the place has expanded not only in size but in status as an institution within Indy’s dining scene — no small task for a place which celebrated five years in business in June.
On a visit one recent weeknight, the place teemed not just with regulars but with groups, a German conversation group among others, giving the place a much more raucous character. The welcome from Jeanette, co-pilot to husband/chef Taki Sawi at this bona fide family business, was no less that of a benevolent matron than it was five years ago. Service, however, was more scattered than in the past. While informative and forthcoming with suggestions, our waiter seemed rushed; a request for fresh soda brought more poured out of another glass — and plenty onto the table.
But the food was largely the same — if a bit better. Tomato balls ($6.50) are crispier, tastier than ever; tiropita ($6.50), still heavenly. Leg of lamb ($14) has a lemon-based sauce now, not the old one with tomatoes, but it’s just as flavorful and tender. A kabob of tilapia, mahi mahi and ahi tuna ($22) was almost overcooked, the fish tasting a bit too similar. But far-from-timid spicing and a creamy lemony sauce were nice touches. I always got my galaktabouriko ($4) cold in the past, which made for a crisper phyllo crust. No such option is given now, and the plate is dolled up with two unnecessary sauces: raspberry and chocolate. Still, it’s a comforting conclusion.
When so many ethnic eateries struggle to survive at first, to see one thriving and drawing in folks of all stripes is promising. That it’s provided the same quality — even improved — shows it’s touched on a formula that works both for the business and for the customers. Certainly other Indy restaurants — even Greek ones — wear the status of “institution,” but few have done it as seamlessly as Santorini. Here’s hoping for not just another five years but many more.
Santorini Greek Kitchen
1417 E. Prospect St.
Monday-Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Friday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Saturday: noon to 10 p.m.
Food: Four stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service:Three and a half stars