Time has passed Ikaros by. Thirty years ago it was hottest Greek restaurant in Baltimore -- maybe even the hottest ethnic restaurant, since we didn't have many of them. The lines waiting for a table on a weekend night went out the door.
Over the years, its success spawned imitators in Greektown, other inexpensive restaurants that served favorites like moussaka and stuffed grape leaves. Then Greek food went upscale with places like the Taverna Athena in Harbor-place, which is now closed, and Opa! Pretty soon, we had the Black Olive and Kali's Court, specializing in pricey grilled fish, and Zorba's, known for its grilled meats.
Other Greek restaurants have come and gone over the years, but Ikaros has always been there, on Eastern between Oldham and Ponca. Same location. Same owners. And, most amazingly, same head chef since 1969. You might wonder why anyone would name a restaurant after someone who crashed and burned, but forget the Greek myth about the boy who flew too near the sun. The owners, Theodosis and Xenophon Kohilas, are natives of the island of Ikaria.
Maybe it's time to rediscover Ikaros, sometime when you're feeling retro. Particularly now that you don't have to wait in line to get a table. The kitchen is at its best when it's dishing up Greek comfort food: braised meats, rice dishes, casseroles and meatballs Greek style. Of course, there are broiled fish and steaks on its gargantuan menu, but the enormous plates of food for under $15 are still your best bet.
Occasionally you may have to go over $15, as when you order the Ikaros Seafood in Phyllo, a sort of seafood strudel. It's a suitcase-sized block of backfin crabmeat and very fresh flounder fillet wrapped in phyllo pastry with a lemony egg sauce.
A slab of moussaka -- made with eggplant, potatoes and a cloud of bechamel sauce -- would feed a family of four for a week. We tried the vegetarian moussaka -- interesting, but it needed the kick of ground beef. I'd go with the meaty version. Braised lamb stewed with green beans made a strong but not unpleasant lamb statement; you have to love lamb to like the juicy shreds of meat falling off their bones.
Melted feta cheese, tomatoes and wine lifted a casserole of shrimp and rice-shaped pasta to star status, at least given the modest price tag. A "small" Greek salad fed two of us as easily as a side dish.
Ikaros' avgolemono soup sounds odd -- the menu says it contains beef -- but it turns out to be the classic intensely lemony chicken broth, milk, egg yolk and rice combination. No beef in sight, thank goodness. A spinach and feta pie in phyllo is worth ordering because the spinach is perfectly seasoned and the pastry its usual flaky self. Grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice with lots of the avgolemono sauce are a small meal in themselves.
Only the octopus cooked with onions and herbs in red wine didn't quite work. The wine gave the pieces a pinkish cast -- so they looked something like chunks of Vienna sausages. (Come to think of it, the texture was sort of the same, too.)
Usually I feel there's no reason to order anything but baklava for dessert at a Greek restaurant, but Ikaros' kataifi -- that staggeringly sweet combination of ground walnuts, sugar syrup and shredded wheat -- is even better than the phyllo-with-walnut-filling pastry. If just reading about them makes you feel like you're slipping into a diabetic coma, the galaktoboureko custard with phyllo is another option. All are homemade.
Ikaros has the feeling of a small, family-run restaurant, although it's actually quite large. There are three sprightly dining rooms, with whitewashed walls and large pictures of sunny Greek scenes. The tables are covered with white linens, and Aegean blue is a recurring motif through the rooms. With the homey food and the nice waitresses, it's enough to make you forget that it's still winter outside.
Where: 4805 Eastern Ave., Highlandtown
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Monday
Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$6.50; main courses, $10.95-$22.95
Outstanding: ****; Good:***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *