I had the pleasure of knowing both of my grandmothers, who hailed from different regions of Greece. Yiayia Koula lived her entire life in a tiny, land-locked village high in the central mountains, while Yiayia Eleni grew up on a windy, arid island in the Aegean Sea. These environments influenced two very distinct cuisines.
When the families joined, so did all the food traditions. One common thread was the source for many flavors—the kipos, a garden in the yard.
At Kipos Greek Taverna, the new Chapel Hill restaurant by prolific local restaurateur Giorgios Bakatsias, both yiayias would have found a dish reminiscent of their respective village kitchens. After 13 years in the Triangle, I've found a local Greek spot that comes closer to my yiayias' cooking.
Most non-Greek palates experience Greece's food in the form of a pita wrap stuffed with meat and heavy-handed notes of yogurt, dill and garlic. In North Carolina, it's especially tough to find the subdued nuances of real Greek food, including vegetarian and seafood specialties.
With a focus on seasonal, high quality and basic ingredients, Kipos is a welcome exception. Simplicity reigns over each dish, presented with a laborious technique rooted in tradition, in the basic resources of a simple life away from the city. Even in the decor, where Bakatsias' former Greek restaurants suffered from a distracting flamboyance, the design flows into an airy, big-hearted and homey ambiance, as though you took a vacation to a Greek island and stayed with the locals.
Kipos's menu breaks into hot and cold mezedes (appetizers), soups, salads, rotisserie (big meat platters), entrées (meat, seafood and vegetarian) and "Mother's Slow Cooking," a daily rotation of home-style selections. This structure is misleading: All dishes are meant to be passed around and picked at, no matter how many people are seated. This is the Greek way. The term entrée, though on the menu, doesn't work here. None are full meals, but rather meat served alone or with a very small side.
The starter spreads offer a taste of the life of a Greek islander. The whipped taramosalata, a peach-hued fish roe dip, provides a smooth, tangy contrast to the soft, house-baked bread—including sourdough and olive loaf—cut in chunks and piled high in a basket placed on the table. The melitzanosalata, Greece's version of baba ghanouj, is impeccable. Greeks don't use tahini, instead tempering the smoky roasted eggplant with fresh lemon juice, garlic, parsley and olive oil. At Kipos, chopped walnuts give this spread a nice crunch. Large doses of garlic work well in the tzatziki, the famed yogurt and cucumber dip, and skordalia, a smooth potato and garlic spread.
Grilled over an open flame, a whole fish is presented on a platter head-on (literally), bathed in latholemono, the essential dressing of a good olive oil whisked into fresh lemon juice. Scallops are beautifully seared and wrapped in kataifi, a shredded wheat normally reserved for desserts, resting on pureed fennel flavored with orange and saffron. The grilled octopus is charred perfectly, although I wish it were served as a whole tentacle, rather than sliced, for authenticity.
In my grandparents' generation, one rife with various wars, meat was a treat. You tended to your animals all day, kept them safe from enemy troops and reserved meat for a big celebration. Kipos celebrates meat in much the same way. A long rotisserie of glistening whole chicken spins in the open kitchen over a wood fire. The result is a crisp skin and tender meat flavored by the hickory smoke. Other meat items include juicy grilled pork, Ottoman-influenced meatballs in a red sauce, paidakia (lemon-spritzed lamb chops) and other parts of the lamb sold by the half-pound.
No Greek-American expects much from a restaurant tiropita or spanakopita. But Olga, Bakatasias's sister, rolls her own phyllo dough. In Greek, one "opens" the phyllos. The technique is done with a long, thin dowel rolling pin in swift, diagonal movements. It is rare to find someone who still does this at home, let alone in a restaurant, where the phyllo is usually store-bought. At Kipos, the phyllo mimics yiayia's version. The tiropita (leeks and salty cheese) and spanakopita (with spinach) are baked in a round pan. The thick, crunchy outside rim takes me back to Yiayia Koula's mountaintop veranda, where I picked out a corner piece of pita for the first time.
The wild food of Greek folklore sneaks into the menu. Salads are speckled with large caper berries, like the ones Yiayia Eleni used to gather along the rocky shore as a child. Fresh oregano and rosemary are reminiscent of the herbs growing on the mountain near Yiayia Koula's house.
Save room for dessert, or at least take a gander at the menu and order one to go. All dessert pieces are cut thick, including baklava (with walnuts) and galaktobouriko (a custard pie). Another surprise was the karithopita, a decadent walnut cake, spongy and light, with strong notes of clove and citrus, topped with a dollop of homemade yogurt, shaved orange rind, honey and fresh blackberries.
Try the dark, syrupy, strong Greek coffee in an espresso cup, served however sweet you'd like it. For a full yiayia experience, turn the cup over on its saucer and spin it clockwise three times. Wait. After a few minutes, peek in for a look at your future, crusted on the inside in the thick muddy coffee grounds.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Greek garden."