I am on a winning streak and feel like I need to be smart about the next place I review to keep it up. For several weeks running now I have had outstanding meals at places I’ve never tried. This type of lucky roll makes an already fun gig that much more exciting and reinforces my notion that the North Shore is undergoing a dining renaissance led by some truly talented chefs, restaurateurs, artisans and craftspeople.
This week’s winning meal, a deftly realized Greek feast at the newly opened Kostas Mediterranean, was a pleasant surprise. I knew absolutely nothing about the place, least of all its long history as a Parkgate mainstay (it had already been around for 15 years, apparently, but closed right as I took on this column) or the resurgence of the long-running Lonsdale Kebab at 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue (now shuttered for a new commercial real estate development) under the same ownership.
On the evening of my visit, a welcome date night with my wife DJ, the long and narrow space situated at the edge of the west side of Victoria Park (the space that was formerly home to Aka Tom-Bo Sushi) was hopping. One group, a table of six, seemed to be having a particularly good time, in no small part due to their frequent and familiar interaction with the evening’s hostess, who I would later learn has been at the helm of Kostas’ front of house since the beginning. Her easygoing poise in the front of house is clearly born of years in the industry and creates a comfortable, familial atmosphere that is very much in keeping with the restaurant’s traditional, excellently executed but still completely approachable menu of principally Greek standards.
The Kostas Mediterranean menu will read as familiar to anyone who dines out for Greek food with any frequency. What the menu cannot possibly foreshadow, however, is just how well these culinary stalwarts are brought to life by the kitchen.
Each armed with a glass of chilled, resinous Retsina, DJ and I tucked into an appetizer course that began with Saganaki, a large, breaded, pan-fried square of sheep’s milk cheese. The dish is typically made from Halloumi or Kefalograviera, both of which become softer once fried, but do not melt, allowing the cheese to retain its shape and enabling easy cutting, like a tender steak made entirely of curd.
The Saganaki, which arrived at the table still sizzling in its iron pan, was outstanding, revealing a perfect golden sear, tender hot interior, and the complex flavours of quality sheep’s milk, at once heady, salty, creamy and tangy. A squeeze of lemon is a must for Saganaki as the acidity counterbalances the exceptional richness of the dish.
Next up was an order of a personal favourite, Taramasalata, a thick, pink-hued dip made of fish roe (the “tarama” part, most commonly cod roe) and a binding agent like potatoes or bread, seasoned with lemon juice, olive oil and herbs. Taramasalata (“salata” meaning salad) is one of my yardsticks for evaluating a Greek meal; I order it every time and I find the quality of its preparation frequently sets the tone for the meal ahead. Kostas’ version is one of the best I’ve had on the North Shore and is motivation enough for me to return to the restaurant. Fluffy and velvety in texture and nuanced in flavour, this iteration was a perfect expression of the dish and one I recommend highly for those seeking to try it for the first time; if you don’t like it here, you likely won’t enjoy taramasalata, full stop.
A plate of fresh feta and olives rounded out the appetizer course and paired perfectly with the Retsina, the sharp, fragrant notes of the wine’s requisite pine resin standing up to the salty, earthiness of the dish.
Actually, I take that back. In fact, I chose not to round out the appetizer course but rather order two more in place of a main as I was both indecisive and far too tempted by both the Garlic Prawns and the Sikotakia, or chicken livers fried in an onion, tomato, white wine and herb sauce. I’ve said this before, but I stand by it: if a restaurant is going to put one of the so-called “nasty bits” of protein on a menu (like tripe, kidney, sweetbreads, heart, liver, etc.) I feel an overwhelming obligation to order it. I commend the effort to use more of a butchered animal than just the choice cuts and, in my experience, places that offer offal and second or third tier cuts of meat tend to have their preparations down to an art form. Kostas was no exception, their hearty livers winning me over with their delicate, silken texture, expert temperature (still ever so slightly soft to the tooth in the very centre), and masterful seasoning.
My prawns, of which there were six in the appetizer portion, were similarly perfect in temperature, retaining their moisture, and were clearly very fresh. Despite the prolific garlic in the butter in which they were sautéed, their subtle flavour was not overwhelmed; I used every last triangle of pita to soak up the aromatic, citrus-lifted butter.
DJ opted for an entrée of Spanokopita, prepared here with a decidedly reserved dill expression, which she appreciated greatly as many other Greek restaurants we’ve visited go heavy on this pungent herb. The spinach and feta pie was served with traditional lemon baked potatoes, supple rice pilaf, and an exceedingly fresh, seemingly made-to-order Greek salad with remarkably ripe tomato, cucumber, and peppers.
We chose a bottle of Ruffino Chianti from the admittedly limited wine list and found the rustic Sangiovese-based wine to be an adequate, if unremarkable, accompaniment to the extraordinary food.
Our meal, which included six dishes and a full bottle of wine, was $130 before gratuity.
Kostas Mediterranean, 751 Lonsdale Avenue, North Vancouver. Kostasmediterranean.com. 604-987-2224.