When a wave of high-profile Greek restaurants opened around Boston — Committee, Gre.Co, Kava, Saloniki — the only question was what took so long. The area encompassing Boston, Worcester, and Providence has the second-biggest Greek population in the country, after New York and Newark. From Carvel ice cream to DeMoulas Market Basket, all-night diners to pizzerias serving puffy-crusted, oregano-scented pies, Greek-run businesses have long influenced how and what America eats. (Fun fact to toss around at a party: In the late ’70s, according to sociologist Lawrence Lovell-Troy, 76 percent of Greek families in Connecticut worked in the pizza business.) Other cities had their Kefis, their Kapnoses. Where was our Greek revival?
Then finally, visibly, it was here. Perhaps most visible of all was Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar, from restaurateur Michael Schlow, who married into a Greek family a few years back. (The artist Adrienne Schlow, his wife, is responsible for much of Doretta’s eye-catching artwork.) Most spouses learn a few traditional dishes to whip up for family gatherings. Schlow opens a whole restaurant. Way to impress the in-laws — but, like, no pressure.
Doretta should have been a smash, the buzzy Greek equivalent of Via Matta, the Italian place Schlow operated for years in the same Park Square space. It never quite got there. (For one thing, it’s harder to open a smash these days, when it seems like another new restaurant opens every night.) The restaurant got mixed reviews. It was good and fine, fine and good. But something was missing.
Meanwhile, down the road, there was excitement at the South End’s Wink & Nod, a “culinary incubator” that hosts pop-up restaurants for extended runs. The chef-in-residence was Brendan Pelley, perhaps best known for appearing on TV cooking competition “Hell’s Kitchen.” His passion project: a modern Greek pop-up called Pelekasis — his family name until his grandfather changed it. Pelley grew up eating Greek food. He wasn’t trend-surfing. He was making Mom’s spanakopita, only with dill cream and dehydrated kalamata olives.
Schlow’s no dummy. He can taste what time it is. (After all, he had the good sense to close Happy’s Bar + Kitchen, which seemed to have been named ironically.) He hired Pelley to take over the kitchen at Doretta.
It’s as if the place had a heart transplant. This food means something to Pelley, and you can taste that on the plate. It’s what was missing: love, passion, feeling, whatever you want to call it. It’s as necessary as salt.
Now Pelley’s running his hands over the harp strings, rolled chords of flavor rippling forth. The tang of whipped feta against the heat of jalapenos, with pillowy pita triangles for dipping. Slices of raw hamachi with strawberries, spiced pistachios, and a lemony vinaigrette, fresh and wonderful (although a version earlier in the year, with Japanese pickled plum and crisped black rice, was even better). Paper-thin coins of zucchini, battered and fried, light and crisp as tempura; squeeze lemon over them and dip them in the yogurt sauce tzatziki.
Texture is a big thing here. Humor is too. Chefs from Joel Robuchon to Barbara Lynch have combined shrimp with kataifi, a shredded form of phyllo dough. And kataifi, walnuts, and honey often come together in a baklava-esque dessert. But only Pelley thinks to wrap all these elements into one dish — which, you realize as you’re eating it, is a Greek riff on Chinese honey walnut shrimp. Clever; delicious. As are Pelley’s gyros, which salute New England’s fried-seafood rolls — on one visit made with tempura soft-shell crab, Aleppo-pepper mayonnaise, and ramp kimchi, a short-lived seasonal delight since replaced by a gyro of fried Ipswich clams.
There are also all kinds of dips and spreads to pick your way through, more raw things, a series of well-conceived salads. It’s Greece without rigidity, a chef’s playground: What if we make a version of fried green tomatoes, adding in plenty of dill — I’d wager Doretta’s dill budget is the highest in the city — and serve them with a sort of Grecian green goddess dressing? We’ll call it “green gaia” (get it?), and we won’t explain a thing on the menu. At Doretta 1.0, the menu steered almost entirely clear of Greek words, as if the chefs were afraid of the very food they were cooking. The menu at Doretta 2.0 does just the opposite. If you’re not in the know, it can start to feel like harassment how often you need to ask the hospitable servers about kritharaki, ladolemono, dakos, hilopites. Sometimes it might be easier to just say “pasta,” but I like the choice. It symbolizes all that is now different about Doretta. The restaurant is no longer trying to sell customers on how approachable Greek food is, how much it is like food they already enjoy. Instead it invites them to a celebration of the cuisine — what it has been, and what it is becoming.
One thing about passion, though. It is imperfect. Pelley’s food keeps evolving, with room for error. The mezze are Doretta’s strong suit, even if there is the occasional salad of unripe peaches and cold grilled halloumi, or foie gras dolmades with an odd, sharp flavor in the background. It’s the large plates that need refining. There are moments of loveliness, like a spring dish of pan-roasted halibut over asparagus, morels, and the egg-lemon sauce avgolemono, sprinkled with cured egg yolk. But then there’s striped bass over orzo with hunks of sausage, red peppers, capers, and olive puree. It tastes pedestrian and looks a mess. Call the vegetarian entree hilopites if you will, but it’s still pasta, and the flavors of sheep’s milk butter and mushroom-corn ragu drown under coarsely shredded, refrigerator-cold cheese. Lamb, however, is always good, whether it’s shoulder served with lentils, turnips, and kumquats, or prepared two ways, grilled and braised, with summer vegetables and a bracing herb vinaigrette.
For dessert, skip the dry brick of baklava and proceed straight to voluptuous galaktoboureko, semolina custard encased in crisp phyllo, drizzled with dried fruit syrup. Even better are the “Greek-inspired” ice creams, in flavors such as chocolate with fig jam, espresso with condensed milk caramel, and strawberry with rosewater gelee. They’re served over granola-esque olive oil crumble, in a long wooden dish over ice.
Doretta has catch-up to do where cocktails are concerned. The drinks are ho-hum, with hokey names like “Mighty Aphrodite” and “Socratic Method.” I’d like to see the cleverness and creativity of the food reflected here. Doretta’s opening cocktail selection incorporated Greek spirits to great effect. Where’d they go? A wine list that emphasizes Greek pours helps make up for it. So does ouzo service, with a choice of two kinds, oversize ball of cucumber ice optional.
Food is a living, breathing thing. When the kids and grandkids of immigrants go into the restaurant business, we get Korean tacos and hipster Jewish delis, Mom’s oxtail re-created with perfect French technique and Pelley’s saganaki fondue electroshocked with Sichuan pepper. How can anyone who tastes these riches fail to love America in all its complexity? In the landscape of local Greek restaurants, Doretta is the one moving the cuisine forward.
DORETTA TAVERNA & RAW BAR
79 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-422-0008, www.dorettaboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Small plates $7-$22. Entrees $18-$42. Desserts $12.
Hours Dinner Mon-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m. Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (bar menu 2:30 p.m. to close).
Noise level Holler over your hilopites. It’s loud in here.
What to order Hamachi krio, zucchini chips, pan-roasted shrimp with kataifi, lamb, Greek-inspired ice cream.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.