You can't help but love Greektown. Servers light cheese on fire at your table while shouting Opa! and the decor, and names, reflect a Midwesterner's impression of Greece: bright blues, stark whites, and restaurants called Pegasus and Greek Islands and Artopolis.
Except that the flaming version of Saganaki with the accompanying Opa! is a Chicago invention. One version is that some chefs were drinking a little too closely to a pan of frying cheese and one spilled some liquor and flames leapt out of the skillet. Then they all shouted Opa!, which is a Grecian expression of shock or surprise. (In another version the owner of The Parthenon claims credit for inventing it in 1968, but that's not as much fun.)
And then there's Venus. This restaurant just west of Halsted on Jackson is named after the Roman goddess of love, not the Greek Aphrodite. It eschews the Disney World color scheme in favor of rustic reds and earthy greens. The bar's a bit campy, since it's designed to look like a ship, but unless you're really paying attention you don't even notice. In fact, I was sitting in the raised center dining area, facing the bar, and didn't see the sail until I was leaving!
The cuisine itself is from the island of Cyprus. Cypriot cuisine was fusion before fusion was hot: a blend of Greek, Turkish, and Mediterranean.
I had reservations for 7:30 on a Monday night. A parking spot opened up right across the street just as I was pulling up, but if it hadn't there wouldn't have been an issue. Venus, like many other Greektown restaurants, has complimentary valet parking. We were greeted warmly immediately and shown to our table, and promptly received water, bread, and a tray of olives. I'm not an olive eater (unless it's stuffed with bleu cheese and soaked in vodka), but I am an olive oil fan.
Jennifer and I looked over the menu. And looked. And looked. There were so many choices! She definitely wanted hummus, but after that we were stymied. Fortunately, Frank came to the rescue.
Our server for the evening, Frank was enthusiastic and had definite favorites. As two ladies with one appetizer chosen we took only one recommendation - the calamari stuffed with spinach, feta cheese, and roasted red peppers. I had spent the day in Chinatown exploring some of their grocery stores so I wanted to make sure there were no tentacles. He assured us it was a presentable dish.
It was definitely non-threatening. Our only complaint was that there was too much spinach and not enough feta. I see feta and I think FETA. But the squid itself was flavorful and tender and the filling was fresh and complemented it well.
The hummus had the traditional slightly lemon-y flavor, but it was a bit grittier and oilier than expected. We both wondered if that's because we've gotten so used to the store-bought versions. Either way, I found it tasted better with the sesame-encrusted bread than the pita. (This made sense after we asked what tahini, the main ingredient for hummus, is - pureed sesame seeds.)
Costas Stylianou, Venus' owner, stopped by the table and insisted on sending out Halloumi Saganaki. This is the Cypriotic version of saganaki, except it's not fried, there's no Opa, there're no flames. This is just baked Cypriot goat cheese. Honestly, it doesn't need all the hoopla. We were both starting to get a bit full but couldn't stop ourselves from taking bite after bite.
For our next course we split an Elliniki salad. You can't go wrong with this traditional Greek salad of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, olives, and feta cheese. It's a large serving, so I definitely recommend sharing it.
By the time dinner was served I thought I was going to explode. Until Frank opened my foil-wrapped lamb and potatoes. Called Kleftiko, they bake this dish for six hours, and the result is lamb so tender it reminded me of my mom's pot roast. Jennifer had a kabob with swordfish, shrimp, scallops, red peppers and onions. It was seasoned just enough to give flavor without masking the character of the seafood.
For dessert I had the baklava and she had a custard wrapped in phyllo. She was going to get the chocolate cake, but Frank insisted there were just too many flavors. He prefers desserts with "simplicity," so you can actually taste the individual ingredients. The baklava was good, but it wasn't in multiple layers like I expected. With our desserts Costas brought us each a small glass of port.
At this point I was amazed I could even hold my head up. Everything was so good I ate much more than was advisable. Originally when we were deciding what to order we considered the Mezes - multi-course small plates - so that we could try as much as possible. I'm glad we didn't. They would have had to carry me out.
Next time I go it will be for the lunch buffet. At $9.95, it's an inexpensive way to try many of the Cypriot specialties you won't find in other Greektown restaurants. But I'm not going to eat for a week before I go!
When dining at Venus, be sure to allow a couple of hours. It's an experience, and some of the items take 35 minutes to prepare. Believe me, this is a meal you'll want to savor.
TLT visited Venus as media, so the meal was complimentary