It's Not as Nice as Last Time, But Zorba's Still Does a Good Job Serving Up the Grilled Meats
I've long been a fan of Zorba's, the unpretentious rotisserie-centric eatery in the heart of--you guessed it--Greektown. My favorite aspect of the Zorba's experience is getting a table near the big glass wall between the kitchen and downstairs bar/dining room and watching the spits laden with chicken and lamb and pork revolve with hypnotic steadiness over hot coals. There are other Greek restaurants with charcoal grills in the neighborhood, but none of them (to my knowledge, anyway) makes quite such a display of rotating meat.
A hankering for Greek food plus the realization that it had been better than two years since I'd last eaten at Zorba's table provided the impetus for a recent visit. On first glance, very little had changed: same window full o' roasting flesh, bouzouki music on the stereo, and a succinct but sufficient menu of char-grilled treats.
To accommodate a dining companion with allergies, we sat upstairs in the nonsmoking dining room. It's a narrow and plain but pleasant space decorated with photo stills from the 1964 Aegean B-movie Zorba the Greek; large blow-ups of Anthony Quinn in a number of ambiguous, quasi-violent and/or sexual scenes certainly provide a unique atmosphere. We toasted Tony with a round of the Greek beer Fix ($3.50 a bottle). An amber lager, Fix is nonetheless a light and fairly zesty brew that goes especially well with seafood (though, we were somewhat disappointed to note, our bottles hailed from Ashford, Va., rather than the Greek isles).
The feast kicked off with a cold appetizer combo platter ($9.95) that we shared around the table. The eggplant salad was a big hit: Picture a very chunky baba ghanouj, only with lots of lemon and studded with lumps of feta cheese. Yum. I was disappointed in the taramasalata. The classic Greek fish-roe salad tasted very little of caviar and a whole lot like the salt shaker. The platter's centerpiece, a marinated octopus salad, could have used a little of that salt but otherwise was very nice: smoky, garlicky, supertender octopus lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and oregano. Feta hunks, tomatoes, olives, and cucumbers rounded out the platter.
As for entrées, two of us went straight for Zorba's spit-roasted specialties. One stubborn diner, however, ignored the vast majority of menu items described using phrases like "charbroiled to perfection" and "flame grilled to your liking" for moussaka ($7.95), the Greek version of shepherd's pie. Zorba's treatment, a little out of left field, drenches the layers of eggplant, lamb, and béchamel sauce with a thin tomato sauce. The moussaka was pleasant enough, though lacking the usual spices. Noting that the rest of the packed dining room's inhabitants all looked to have been born during the Hoover administration, the moussaka's owner theorized that perhaps Zorba's spice cabinet is kept locked due to demographic preference.
Zorba's offers to flame-broil just about every type of meat imaginable. I went for the kontosouvli ($12.95), grilled marinated pork. The mound of tender on the inside, char-crusted and smoky on the exterior pork chunks could supply a small village celebration, especially with sides of Greek-style roasted potatoes and string beans with tomatoes. The beans were cooked to the point of disintegration and not especially flavorful, but I did enjoy the oregano-dusted potatoes with their golden, chewy jackets and fluffy centers.
The roasted catch of the day was either rockfish, red snapper, or black sea bass (each $16.95). My companion elected to try the sea bass and was served a gorgeous whole fish that smelled of smoke and lemon and looked delicious. Unfortunately, the poor swimmer had spent too much time over the flame--the flesh, almost completely dried out, was totally unappealing. "Kinda like fish jerky," its consumer commented hopefully, chewing carefully to separate dried flesh shards from the fine bones. (To her credit, the server did notice the nearly untouched fish and offered to replace it; when told we didn't have time to wait, she instead took half its price off our bill).
For dessert we tried a trio of Greek classics, each $2. I liked the baklava, but one companion complained that it was too dry (the syrup seemed to have been poured over the pastry at the last minute, rather than allowed to steep into the phyllo and filling as in the usual preparation) even as he kept stealing forkfuls. The galaktoboureko--a kind of custard encased in phyllo and drizzled with the same honeyed syrup--was also good, but the rice pudding was completely bland and uninteresting, even for rice pudding.
I left Zorba's with mixed feelings. We'd all enjoyed ourselves, even Mr. Fish Jerky, but the food is not quite as good as I remember from a few years ago. Maybe it was just an off night over the charcoal pit, but then maybe it's also time for Zorba's to find that guy with the keys to the spice cabinet.