It's Greek, It's Good And It's Mostly About Meat

DINING OUT

April 30, 1995|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Dionysos, 4617 Eastern Ave., (410) 563-2338. Open every day for dinner. AE, MC, V. Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$9.95; entrees, $6.50-$13.95. ***

New Greek restaurants haven't fared very well in zTC Highlandtown in recent years, no matter how good the food. I'm thinking of the Mediterranean and the Aegean specifically. Maybe it's just that people automatically head for Ikaros, the area's best-known Greek restaurant, when they have a craving for spanakopita and fried squid.

If that's the reason, the owners of the Dionysos (pronounced The-ON-esus) made a smart decision when they opened their taverna last fall: to do something a little different. You won't find .. stuffed grape vine leaves and moussaka on the menu; this is the place to go for meats and fish grilled Greek style over charcoal or on a spit.

You get the most choices on the weekend; then the succulent-sounding "roast baby piglet" is available, and baby lamb cooked on the spit. Unfortunately, we didn't realize we wouldn't be able to sample everything when we went on a Wednesday evening.

The bar was doing a brisk business, but no one else was eating dinner while we were there. I can't figure out why. It's not the

food, which is quite good. Or the prices, which are quite reasonable. Or the service or decor. Maybe nobody outside the Greek community knows about Dionysos.

This is a meat eaters' restaurant: There should be a sign that says For Carnivores Only. Yes, you can get grilled chicken, fish and octopus. But meat is the star. The one vegetable, and I use the term loosely, was green beans cooked Greek style in tomato sauce for so long that they lost most of their shape and color.

Dionysos is a pretty little restaurant, but taverna probably describes it better. The bar is very much a presence in the dining room, in spite of the row of hanging plants and wrought-iron fence that separates the two areas. It's classic Greek restaurant decor, with a blue and white color scheme and murals of Mykonos. Greek music plays in the background. The bad news is that there's a television in the dining room. "Wheel of Fortune" is likely to be competing with the Greek music unless you ask your waiter to turn the television off.

Dionysos has tripe soup and the traditional avgolemono (chicken, egg and lemon). We decided, though, on the soup of the day. The waiter called it lentil, but it turned out to be a not-too-heavy, tomato-based white bean soup, subtly flavored and very pleasing.

We all shared the "Dionysos meze": various tidbits of charcoal-grilled meats in a rich wine sauce, vigorously seasoned with garlic and oregano. The sweetbreads were tender and delicate; the slices of Greek sausage vibrantly seasoned. But, alas, it was hard to tell the pieces of filet mignon and baby beef liver apart. Both were tough and a little overcooked.

No complaints about our third first course, though: the grilled octopus was pleasantly chewy and full of flavor, with a nice edge of char. It was arranged with kalamata olives, onions and tomatoes.

If you order fish for a main course, it will come whole unless you request otherwise -- most of Dionysos' customers prefer it that way, according to our waiter. But the cook will fillet the fish after it's charcoal-grilled if you ask. Your waiter will tell you what's freshest that day. When we were there, it was mullet. We got four whole small fish, beautifully fresh, with mild white flesh.

Weeknights, foods cooked on the spit are limited to chicken or pork loin. We had the pork, marinated and then roasted so it was juicy and flavorful. The waiter recommended the lamb chops; they turned out to be rack-of-lamb chops, crusty-charred and faintly pink in the middle, with a sprinkling of herbs. Both meats came with oven-roasted potatoes that were too mushy for my taste; the lamb also had a cucumber-sour cream sauce on the side.

For greenery, order Dionysos' Greek salad, with good lettuces, all the traditional vegetables, chunks of feta cheese, anchovies and a zesty vinaigrette.

Dionysos has only one dessert, a soft and creamy caramel custard, on the menu. But the waiter came to tell us that the cook had made a complimentary dessert, and would we be interested? We were interested, although at this point we were also very full.

When he brought out a large plate of fritters in syrup, we figured we'd just take a token bite. But they were very hot and very crisp, and the syrup was very sweet and cinnamon-scented, and somehow we ended up finishing most of the plate.

Next: Louie's Bookstore Cafe

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