The BYO charm of Mythos
Once, in a Greek restaurant, a gruff waiter asked me if I wanted Greek or Turkish coffee. Sensing a trap, I meekly asked him what the difference was. He grunted, “There isn’t any.” Greece and Turkey have always been at loggerheads historically, but their Mediterranean cuisines have much in common, especially an emphasis on vegetables, yogurt, and other healthful ingredients. My two subjects this month, Mythos and Turquoise, both do their homelands proud.
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You might think you’ve found the mythical great mom-and-pop neighborhood restaurant in Mythos. Close. It’s really sister and sister. Toni Di Meola runs the dining rooms, powered by pats on the back, and her sib Vicky Zervas is the chef who may come by and ask quietly how you like her Greek home cooking. You’ll try to say, “Just fine,” but your mouth will be full.
The two small rooms are Mediterranean blue, framing coral-colored banquettes and white-clothed tables with black napkins. This stretch of Montrose feels nothing like the sprawling hubbub of Greektown, and that’s the whole idea. Still, expect crowds here, too: The flavors are familiar, but the made-to-order food is superior to the fare on South Halsted. And it’s BYO. So many people bring wine that there was a shortage of wineglasses on one Saturday visit.
First hint that you’re not in Opaahville: insanely fresh standards like yogurt/cucumber tzatziki and thick carp roe taramo-salata purée. Then there are terrific starters such as kolokytho keftedes—fried zucchini and cheese patties served with skordalia (potato and garlic spread). For sheer pleasure, though, honors go to the dense orange-and-anise-scented pork, beef, and lamb loukanika (sausages). Charbroiled octopus, though, was a dud: once, the texture of old boots, and another time slightly newer boots. A vegetable of the day comes with entrées—long-cooked green beans with tomatoes and onions on one visit—plus rice pilaf or roasted potatoes. No one’s going hungry.
Both the menu and Di Meola tout the pastitsio, served in individual casseroles. This Greek classic owes a lot to Italy: A layer of macaroni with Parmesan Romano is topped with a layer of Black Angus ground beef, sauced Bolognese-style, then a layer of béchamel before baking. It’s got a touch of nutmeg to it—very rich, and Chicago’s best.
Grecian chicken breast is never this moist, but the one at Mythos, marinated in olive oil, lemon, and oregano before charcoal grilling, certainly is. Psaronefri is another standout—pork tenderloin charbroiled with pepper, rosemary, and sea salt, served with homemade mustard sauce. And you can’t go wrong with garides giouvetsi—black tiger shrimp cooked in a chunky sauce of tomatoes, red peppers, and onions finished with feta cheese and served on rice pilaf. The best dessert is revani, a semolina flour and egg cake flavored with lemon and soaked in homemade honey syrup. It’s a 40-year-old recipe from the sisters’ mother, who still summers in their hometown: Athens.
Photograph: Kendall Karmanian
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The aromas—mint, dill, oregano, and grilling lamb—are what grab you first at Turquoise, a rousing Turkish/Mediterranean restaurant in Roscoe Village. After that, it’s the noise. This cozy minimalist space, with the granite-topped bar and hanging pendant lamps, is rocking. It’s fun and so lively that you don’t mind the din, particularly when you dig into a welcoming basket of warm round loaves of house-made Turkish bread and a cabbage-yogurt spread.
The hummus made me perfectly happy and the feta salad was fine—even dandy—but I don’t see appetizers like lahmacun (well-seasoned ground beef and chopped vegetables on thin, soft flatbread) every day. At $3.50 this distant cousin of pizza is the best deal in the house and perfect to share over drinks. The table card lists several Argentinean wines, great values at $20 a bottle, but stay Turkish and order a 2001 Kavaklidere Selection Kirmizi ($30), an intensely purple, dry, medium-bodied pour.
Turks are obsessed with eggplant, so when you share appetizers go for the sogurme, a baba ghannouj-like dip of smoked eggplant, brown butter, yogurt, garlic, and walnuts toasted in crushed red pepper. In a similar vein, but with completely different flavors, is mujver—pan-fried zucchini pancakes with scallions, feta, and mint over creamy yogurt garlic sauce. Have everything with su boregi, pastry sheets layered with feta and fresh dill, folded, baked, and cut into pieces that resemble kugel: crisp outside, soft and savory inside.
Seven kebap dishes (Turkish kebabs) anchor the entrées, and they are satisfying, if oversalty. Two versions of chopped lamb stood out: beyti kebap seasoned with garlic and chopped shallots and served wrapped in flatbread, and onion kebap with delicious caramelized whole shallots and cherry tomatoes in rich pomegranate sauce.
Manti is among the finest dishes in the Anatolian catalog: The shape is somewhere between tortellini and pot stickers, but the result is 100 percent Turkish. Traditionally the pasta pockets are stuffed with lamb, but here it’s ground veal seasoned with oregano and onion, smothered in a creamy yogurt sauce with chili oil and tomato sauce. And the Imam bayildi—unforgettably translated as “priest fainted”—employs a baby eggplant, which is pan-roasted and stuffed with red- and green-pepper strips, onion, tomatoes, garlic, and lots of pine nuts.
Turquoise’s baklava is too heavy on the pastry and too light on the nuts; I prefer the kazandibi, a custard made with caramelized butter and served with vanilla ice cream. It’s perfect with a Turkish coffee and a nightcap of raki, Turkey’s bold answer to ouzo. The Turks don’t do anything halfway.
MYTHOS 2030 W. Montrose Ave.; 773-334-2000 A model meal Loukanika, garides giouvetsi, revani Tip When making reservations—a good idea—ask about nearby parking lot; street parking difficult. Hours Dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $35
TURQUOISE 2147 W. Roscoe St.; 773-549-3523 A model meal Sogurme, manti, kazandibi Tip For drama, order the salt-crusted sea bass flamed tableside. Hours Brunch Sunday, lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly Tab (without wine, tax, or tip) $25 to $30