Surrounded by belly dancing and live Greek music on weekend evenings, along with jovial patrons and sudden tongues of flame leaping from tableside presentations of saganaki, it's easy to be wowed by the festive atmosphere at Niko's on Detroit. The eye-catching decor might best be described as funky-metropolitan-nouveau-Greek, pairing the traditional Hellenic key pattern (symbolizing eternity) with navy-blue walls and tables, etched glass, stainless steel and blue neon to create a thoroughly updated ethnic eatery in the space previously occupied by a furrier.
Owner Niko Moulagianis says he visited Greek restaurants in New York, Chicago and Toronto — only to determine that the eponymous eatery he planned to open could never be "some hokey, rustic place with terra cotta walls and a picture of the Acropolis."
In truth, Moulagianis initially had no intention of opening a Greek restaurant at all. Although his two previous forays into the business, sports bars in Parma and North Olmsted, featured his excellent gyros (more to follow on these marvels later) and saganaki, he feared there was no market for an entirely Greek eatery on Cleveland's West Side. At his church's annual festival, however, Moulagianis' father stepped in with an observation that changed his mind. "He asked if I noticed how long the lines were for food," Moulagianis recalls. "When I stated that I had, he asked, Now, how many of those people are Greek?' And I noticed not many were."
Having plotted his culinary course, Moulagianis enlisted the aid of his mother, who lends her hand in the kitchen and her excellent recipes to many of the classic Greek dishes. We can say that "Mama Niko" and her son both know what they're doing, because every dish we sampled, from classic to contemporary, was excellent. The aforementioned and ubiquitous saganaki ($7) — a traditional dish of pan-fried sheep's-milk cheese flambÃ©ed with rum tableside and sprinkled with fresh-squeezed lemon — is a nice starter with fresh warm pita.
For the best dining experience, however, look into ordering the combination mezes (appetizer) platter ($14), which offers diners two dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs); two spanakopita (bite-size, spinach-stuffed phyllo pies); gyro meat, pork, beef and chicken souvlaki (grilled marinated skewers); and the choice of two of the four excellent dips. We found the dolmades to be excellent, flavorful and faithful renditions of the classic Greek appetizer. The spanakopita was vastly superior to the little premade heat-and-eat triangles that have been a stalwart of cocktail parties for the last 15 years, and each of the souvlaki meats proved tender, the taste hinting perfectly of fresh grilling. Of the dips we sampled, we'd rank them — in order, starting from "very good" to "we'd-drink-a-cup-of-this" — as hummus (ground chickpea), melitzanosalata (eggplant and garlic), tyrokafteri (feta cheese and red pepper) and tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt).
The observant reader will note that we did, in fact, sample every dip. Perusing the menu, it seems we tried an embarrassingly vast array of Niko's appetizers. Little did we know at the time that this is actually the fashion in which Moulagianis himself feels Greek food is best enjoyed. "A Greek meal is often comprised of an assortment of mezedes," he says. "To me, that is what Greek meals are like."
So, having thinly excused our big, fat Greek gluttony, you may as well know that the baked feta topped with roasted red pepper, mozzarella cheese and oregano ($6); avgolemono, a superb chicken-broth soup embellished with rice, whipped egg whites and lemon ($3.25); and sautÃ©ed calamari ($9) were all excellent as well. Moulagianis lists this last dish — tender squid sautÃ©ed in olive oil and white wine with garlic, kalamata olives and tomatoes — as the menu item he most wishes everyone would try. "I originally created that dish on the spur of the moment," he says, "for an Italian gentleman who had gone on a carbohydrate-free diet, but loved the usually breaded squid dish." (For those who prefer the latter version, that, too, is on the menu.)
All this attention to appetizers, however, isn't meant to detract from the entrees that we also sampled with gustatory gusto. Mama Niko's pastitsio ($12), consisting of layers of pasta mixed with seasoned ground beef and baked with a topping of bÃ©chamel vauce, is a hearty entree somewhat comparable to its Mediterranean cousin, lasagna, but with a decidedly Greek flavor.
More satisfying yet was the kokkinisto arni, a tender braised lamb shank slow-roasted in a wonderful clove-scented tomato sauce and served over linguine.
And then, there are the gyros. Niko's gyros are to their lackluster concession-stand cousins what sushi is to live goldfish. That is, the less-refined examples are only edible when one is inebriated.
Considered the house specialty, gyros comprise an enormous helping of gyro meat (a delicious mixture of perfectly seasoned beef and lamb ground together and then slow-roasted on a horizontal spit, in case you've somehow missed this most prevalent of Greek comestibles) topped simply with onions and tomatoes, wrapped in a soft, warm pita and served with a side of tzatziki sauce which, as previously noted, is "we'd-drink-a-bowl-of-this" good. In fact, on one of our visits, a dining companion was so taken with the smaller portion of gyro meat on our appetizer platter that we found ourselves dispatched to Niko's the following day for luncheon gyros to go.
During our visit on a weekday evening and the immediately subsequent brief lunch visit, the restaurant, while by no means empty, could certainly have enjoyed increased patronage. Even Moulagianis acknowledges that had he "opened an Italian place, it would probably be twice as busy." This is a crying shame since so many flavors and ingredients are shared between the two cuisines. We suggest more people give Olive Garden a rest and try something different and locally owned.
Fridays and Saturdays at Niko's, however, more than take care of themselves and Moulagianis is currently remodeling the space next door, formerly a pizza shop, to create a cozy room available for larger parties and overflow seating.
When asked about his general theory of dining, he says he's looking for "three wows" from each guest: " Wow!' when they walk in the door, Wow!' when the try the food and Wow!' when they get their bill, which is much less than could be expected for the amount of food you get."
Niko's on Detroit succeeds in all three areas and, indeed, our every visit left us with full stomachs, immodestly overflowing to-go containers and enough extra money for a movie (forget the popcorn). If you're in the mood for some excellent Greek cooking in a classy, yet comfortable environment suited equally to families or festive nights out, or are simply looking to expand your culinary horizons, Niko's is the place to go.
Niko's on Detroit 15625 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, (216) 226-7050. Mon-Wed 11 a.m. - 11 p.m., Thu-Sat 11 a.m. - midnight. Reservations recommended on weekends.