Gyros. Lamb chops. Grape leaves. Cheap rosé. That’s pretty much the extent of the Greek food repertoire that most Chicago diners have in mind. Chef Louie Alexakis is about to do his best to change that.
“Greek food in the Midwest is still your classic homestyle meal,” Alexakis says. “That’s fabulous, but I also think, as we’ve seen in many other cuisines, it’s nice to elevate the food a bit.” That’s the goal at Avli Taverna (1335 W. Wrightwood Avenue, Lincoln Park), his new restaurant set to open this summer. Alexakis is a veteran of the Chicago food scene—long-time diners might remember him as the chef at the city’s first Greek tapas spot, Ouzeri, in the mid-90s.
What does “elevate” mean here? Alexakis wants to revisit some old classics and transform them into special plates. He also wants to mine the regional cuisines of Greece for ideas Chicagoans haven’t seen before. “All the wonderful Greek restaurants in Chicago were created by people from the same parts of Greece," he says. "They serve braised lamb, stuffed tomatoes. I like seeing dishes from other places.”
You may have tried the entire menu at Greektown mainstay Athena, but have you ever tasted spetzofai? Originating from the Greek port city of Volos, this dish combines sausages and peppers in a rich tomato sauce laced with cumin and garlic. It dates back to the 19th century, when large numbers of Eastern Europeans migrated to Greece. “Greeks made their own sausage, but no one had thought to cook sausage along with peppers,” says Alexakis.
The chef is also excited to highlight what some might describe as the traditional Greek version of barbecue. “In Sparta, where my family is from, there’s a tremendous number of rotisseries that just cook pork all day long,” he says. “You go up and order half a kilo of pork, throw some fries on the plate, and there’s your meal.” Avli Taverna will use high-quality Berkshire pork to ensure this dish is the best possible version of itself.
As for dessert, even an old favorite like baklava will receive star treatment. The kitchen will embellish the traditional pastry with cinnamon ice cream and caramel, so it maintains its classic flavors with some extra sugar and spice.
Patrons can expect to enjoy all these plates in a bright and comfortable space. Local studio Esyn Design is in charge of the restaurant’s look, and its task is to decorate it with natural textures and surfaces while avoiding generic modern designs. “I want the space to feel like it belongs to Greek food,” Alexakis says.
Avli Taverna will offer just a taste of what Alexakis and his partners—investor William Glastris, Jr. and sportscaster Lou Canellis—have been cooking up. Next year, the trio plans to open a higher-end spot in River North. “Chicago is the greatest food town in the world, and I want our Greek food to catch up,” says Alexakis. “I hope this first restaurant in Lincoln Park is a couple of steps in the right direction."