We’re no strangers to Greek food via the supermarket: Greek yogurt, hummus, and olive oil are abundant in almost everyone’s life these days. Yet truly Greek restaurants—good ones—are woefully limited here in Seattle. One reason is that, as with so many ethnic cuisines, there’s often a dumbing-down for the Western palate. While that mind-set is being challenged voraciously in the Asian food scene, Greek food has been wide open for a refresh. This is where Omega Ouzeri comes in.
While most Greek restaurants tend toward the dark, rustic taverna look—not completely without its charms, but rather predictable and a bit too kitschy—this Capitol Hill establishment takes you instead to the bright and sunny Greek isles with its soaring ceilings, cobalt and white palette, and a massive pale-blue mural on its central wall depicting mermaids at sea, octopuses hanging to dry, and a steep hill leading from the ocean to staggered village homes on a mountain precipice. There’s a long, lovely blue-and-white-tiled bar at the back next to the open kitchen, which looks like a great spot to dine as well. These days, while every new restaurant seems to have the same sparse industrial look, often with even the exact same chairs and stools, I’m gleeful entering a space that obviously shows real thought behind the design.
The food here reflects a more modern sensibility as well. While there’s plenty of tzatziki (yogurt sauce with dill) to go around, the delicious small plates (mezes) don’t rely on it alone for flavor. There are no kebobs or moussaka or most of the other tired staples we’ve come to associate with Greek food. There’s grilled halloumi, yes, but glazed with grape pesto and petimezi—a thick grape syrup from Crete, similar to molasses but milder. And speaking of petimezi, that’s another distinguishing factor at Omega: They actually use lots of unfamiliar Greek words, which the servers are more than happy to elucidate. While it can make ordering a tad challenging, it’s nice to be taken out of your comfort zone and engage with a knowledgeable staff.
It’s easy to make a meal of the mezes here—reasonably priced in the $8–$12 range and generously portioned. You can add a few slightly larger plates for $12–$15 to the mix as well. Here’s a sampling of what I tried among them. Kolokithokeftedes are zucchini fritters (four of them)—so crispy and not at all greasy, and the filling of feta, mint, and scallions allows each of those ingredients to emerge. They almost make the garlic aioli served with them moot. When you’re tempted to skip the aioli, you know they’re doing something right.
Good luck finding a salata karoto (carrot salad) on more traditional Greek menus. This one, a rainbow-colored heap of julienned heirloom carrots, radicchio, and bitter greens, is dressed with a sharp, lemony vinegar, studded with cubes of feta, and served atop a decadent pistachio butter, so good you might come back for it alone. Nutty and creamy, it’s a perfect foil to the brightly flavored salad. I’d buy it jarred if I could and smear it over bread. A special on one of my visits, three tail-on Gulf shrimp served on a bed of taramasalata (a Greek condiment made of cod roe mixed with bread crumbs, lemon juice, and olive oil) was creamy and briny, and enlivened the milder-tasting shrimp. To make it more springlike, the dish is served with a slaw of onions and fennel. Tiny pieces of fried potato throughout bring crunch, and triangles of pita bread allow you to sop up every last mouthful of the taramasalata.
Soutzoukakia—grilled meatballs, according to the menu, though they look more like sausages—are simple but tasty, with an assist from a thick tomato jam and a dollop of tzatziki. Kotopoulo sharas, one of the larger portions, consists of Draper Valley farm chicken served in skewer-like pieces. The chicken is juicy and very oregano-forward; despite that, it needed some salt. It too is served with tzatziki and pita. (My daughter made little sandwiches out of them.) Nettle pies, tsouknida pita, have crisp dough like the fritters, but are filled with nettles, shallots, scallions, garlic, and lemon. Again, salt was shy, though I relished the distinctive taste of the summery, vegetal nettles. Their fava santorini—the closest you’ll get to a hummus plate here—is a dip of fava beans dotted with red onion and capers and drizzled with lemon and olive oil. It was one of my least favorite dishes though; pasty in texture and bland.
Some items I didn’t get to try include the dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves), grilled octopus, and a Greek salad—I’m curious to how they interpret these mainstays.
Besides the mezes, the restaurant offers three entrée-portioned dishes for $23 and up: lamb shoulder, tuna, and whole-grilled branzino. I opted for the slow-roasted lamb over slightly soupy lentils and served with—wait for it—tzatziki. The lamb itself was ho-hum, a little overcooked and underseasoned; this is one case when the yogurt was much needed. (The same dish, more or less, over at Westward is considerably better.)
Dessert on one visit was a semolina cake with chunks of hibiscus-poached rhubarb (I appreciated getting actual sizable bites of rhubarb, which so often is just incorporated into a sauce), topped with a citrus yogurt. It was solid, though it doesn’t hold a candle to their Greek rice pudding. Impossibly creamy, it has slices of preserved orange floating in it, which you drag through the pudding with a spoon, resisting the urge to eat the sweet, citrusy condiment whole.
Also unique at Omega Ouzeri: its expansive Greek wine and spirit list, divided by region, with wines from Macedonia, Attica, Peloponnisos, and elsewhere, plus half a dozen ouzos and cocktails using Greek liquors such as rakomelo and mastiha. To help novices (like me) navigate the myriad choices, a glossary explains the various grapes and regions. I’m looking forward to diving into it on my next visit—as well as more of the inspired dishes at this much-needed Greek standout.
OMEGA OUZERI 1529 14th Ave., 257-4515, omegaouzeri.com. 4–10 p.m. daily.