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The complaint most frequently lodged against D.C. as a dining town is that Washington doesn’t have great ethnic food. By which people mean that we don’t have great white European ethnic food—conveniently ignoring the wealth of Ethiopian, Thai, and Vietnamese restaurants that in many ways define our culinary landscape. But you almost never hear anyone lamenting the absence of really good Greek food.
This is a strange omission. For one thing, many of the staples of the cuisine—olives, olive oil, fresh herbs, simply prepared seafood—are so sought-after these days. For another, there are just a handful of Greek restaurants in the area, and except for the recently opened Zaytinya—which isn’t, properly speaking, a Greek restaurant but a riff on Greek (and Lebanese, and Turkish) cooking—nearly all of them hew closely to tradition. But then again, maybe the reason has something to do with that very hidebound tradition: large, generous plates of food taken straight from the canon (moussaka, spanakopita, and the rest), a staff that is generous and friendly to a fault, and the occasional bit of dinner theater in the form of smashed plates or of fried cheese set afire by a charismatic, Bic-carrying waiter.
Mourayo is a bold, willful departure from the rest, as its self-promotion is quick to point out—“Greek cuisine of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Its long-abandoned Dupont Circle space once occupied by Peter’s Passion grafts a faintly nautical theme—tiny wooden portholes, each adorned with a looping rope of an M, line the narrow dining room—onto an intimate bistro design. The spirit of the Aegean is summoned in walls of sandblasted white, which set off the stylish blue teardrop lights and votives and the blue bottles of Souroti, the sparkling water from Thessaloniki that has lately been taking the place of leaded tap on many tables. And instead of the big, boisterous families of memory, the dining room is more likely to be full of gay men and their mothers, or gay men and their partners, not to mention the occasional four-top of put-together professional women bonding after work.
The restaurant’s presentations eschew family-style platters for sculpted white plates that have a sleek, elegant Crate and Barrel look to them. And chef Matthew Vardaris sometimes appears to spend as much time plating the food as he does preparing it. A beggar’s purse of bundled and baked phyllo dough enclosing some sweet, well-roasted peppers and manouri cheese, served on a square white dish with upturned edges, is accompanied by a drizzle of green-onion-accented olive oil and a pepper purée. John Dory fish, an entree, makes a pretty presentation, a kind of molded potato hash providing a bed for the shingling of lightly browned fillets, from which emanates a spray of three perfectly cooked asparagus spears. And saganaki, that bubbling vessel of sweet, tangy tomato sauce stocked with shrimp and topped with melting feta, is nearly transformed beyond recognition: Five small, overcooked shrimp, coated with tomato sauce and clinging to cubes of an oddly unsalty feta, are curled about a mound of shaved fennel.
Despite such stabs at stylishness—and altogether upscale prices (dinner for two can easily inch into three digits)—not everything at Mourayo is so chic. The young, mostly male wait staff with their starched white sailor suits and their navy fisherman’s caps are only the most visible example. (You half-expect to hear them blurting out, “We are two wild and crazy guys!”) But they go about their business with an endearing, if awkward, earnestness. “Isn’t he adorable?” a woman at a nearby table remarked to her companion one night, as their server swept the last of their appetizers away. “I almost want to take him home with me.”
And for all of the obvious, sometimes straining modernity of the presentation, a lot of the cooking betrays a yesteryear sturdiness. A lamb-and-orzo stew is the sort of satisfying, hearty dish that you tend to expect of a Greek restaurant. The version here, with alternately tender and chewy morsels of lamb, is made lusty by a shower of kefalotiri cheese, a kind of lighter, milkier Parmesan. The other worthy among the lamb dishes is the chops, grilled just to interior pinkness and napped by a rich, veal-stock-intensified reduction. One of the last places you’d expect to find a pork loin is on the menu of a Greek restaurant, but the dish, “Pythagoras’ Theorema,” is rooted, in part, in the lore of ancient Greece. Pythagoras, ever the tinkerer, liked to cook, and among the notions he advanced was that pork and figs make a pleasing gustatory match. Mourayo introduces a third element to the dish, manouri. It works, if only because the figs assume the crucial role of unifier: adding a necessary bit of sweetness to the pork, undercutting the creaminess of the cheese.
Seafood and fish predominate—far more than at most Greek restaurants, which, aside from the almost-obligatory whole grilled fish, tend to be meat-centered enterprises. The cod is superb, sweet and crispy brown along the edges from its quick sautée, bedded atop a rich, eggy fluff of skordalia. Roasted, diced beets drenched in olive oil add a distinctly contemporary touch. And the octopus, tough and chewy on my first few visits, was much improved in subsequent meals, thanks to a slight change of technique in the kitchen. (The meat is stabbed just before boiling, allowing it to soak up more of the softening water, then thrown onto the grill.) The thick, bulging tentacle, which is curled into a dramatic, purplish question mark on the plate, is unusually moist and tender—and a terrific vehicle for its light, smoky char. The lone soup is not the expected chicken-and-rice or lemon-and-egg but a squid-ink broth, so black as to appear almost fathomless and fortified with a rich, salty stock. Yes, there is a whole grilled fish—actually, there are six of them, including white and red snapper and branzino. Their appeal is in their simplicity. The fishes are gutted and filleted and stuffed with whole sprigs of fresh herbs. The kitchen wisely errs on the side of undercooking, resulting in flesh that is wonderfully moist.
The aforementioned John Dory, however, lacks the animating brightness of the best of these dishes, despite an intriguing wild-fennel sauce. The same goes for a seafood sampler plate—including two kinds of anchovy, salted and unsalted, as well as mussels, clams, and shrimp.
“I told you it was fishy fish,” the waiter gently chided my wife and me. He did; what he didn’t say was that it was unremarkable fish.
For the most part, though, the wait staff is inclined toward garrulousness. One night I listened happily to an eagerly delivered, detailed description of what my waiter referred to as “the story behind” each of the desserts, whose titles—“Sappho’s Rhapsody” “Aphrodite’s Desire”—seem designed for just such delicious explication. We settled on Aphrodite’s Desire—thick, sour Greek yogurt topped off with a viscous layer of honey and strewn with walnuts.
“Aphrodite,” our waiter said, gesturing toward the dessert before us, “had many boyfriends.”
We looked at each other, brows wrinkling.
“The walnuts,” he said, only just now hinting at humor. “The walnuts represent the boyfriends.” We roared with laughter.
Ten minutes later, of course, I heard the story again, over at another table, and what had seemed fresh and funny and even touching in its delivery now seemed like schtick. Which just goes to show: You can dispense with all the traditional trappings, you can proffer up the prettiest plates, you can wrap yourself in the mantle of what’s modern and trendy, but some things never, ever change.
Mourayo, 1732 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 667-2100.—Todd Kliman
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