The poor waiter assigned to the task of igniting our saganaki — aka "flaming Greek cheese" — nearly dropped the platter out of fright when it erupted into a terrifying fireball just inches from his face. Needless to say, he neglected to bellow the all-important "Opa!" that has accompanied the classic dish since it was invented in the late '60s.
We'll forgive him the lapse in protocol given the near-dire circumstances.
More than anything, it seems, local diners have lamented the lack of great Greek food in downtown Cleveland. The popular Greek Isles restaurant closed well over a decade ago, and only now has a reliable substitute entered the market. At sunny Santorini, owner Tommy Karakostas, who also operates the Greek Village restaurants, is doing an admirable job of showcasing this effervescent Mediterranean cuisine.
Santorini, which opened in the old BRGR 9 spot in the Warehouse District, is more than three years in the making. The modern Greek eatery originally was bound for Ohio City, but those plans never materialized. That's probably for the best, as this airy, loft-like space seems tailor made for the bold and bright flavors that are hallmarks of the genre.
Though brand new, Santorini feels familiar, as though it tore a page out of the Greek restaurant playbook. There's the customary white-washed walls and sky blue accents. An oar boat, perched above the entryway, seems poised to make a quick getaway. Large murals depict the namesake island 5,000 miles away. But the restaurant also takes cues from its Warehouse District setting, with behind-the-times Crayola-colored martinis, unnecessarily loud music, steep prices and a proscription against plate sharing.
Santorini, like any great Greek shop, excels at starters, or mezedes, with a remarkable roster of 20 some items. Every table should begin their meal with the tri-dip platter ($18), an attractive arrangement of warm quartered and skewered pita and a trio of small jars containing pitch-perfect dips and spreads. Ours contained salty, creamy taramasalata, a blend of carp roe and sourdough bread; tangy feta stirred with hot peppers; and a summery tzatziki. The appetizer is an upgrade from the delicious (and free) bread service containing pita, olives, fluffy hummus and labneh, delicate yogurt cheese balls.
Santorini's take on spanakopita ($13), the addictive flaky spinach pie, is a rolled affair, much like an egg roll filled with feta, scallions and the aforementioned chopped spinach. Easy to eat; easy to love.
At its best, Greek food is unpretentious, elegant, even spare, allowing the fresh ingredients to work their magic. That's precisely the formula adhered to in the grilled octopus ($16), one of the best versions of the dish in the city. Firm, meaty and charred from the grill, the sliced tentacles are paired with shaved red onion, a few ripe tomatoes and some greens. All it needed was a splash of fresh lemon to make it shine.
That same laudable approach is on display in the bronzini ($29), an entree of whole grilled fish sporting crisp skin, buttery flesh, and a light lemon oil for dipping. Occasionally the kitchen pushes the concept of minimal a bit too far, as in the case of a vegetarian entree of orzo pasta ($17) with spinach, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes, which lacked seasoning and the promised addition of feta cheese.
We know and love Karakostas' Greek Village shops for their booze-friendly gyros, so it's no surprise that those served downtown are just as tasty. At lunch they're served in the familiar rolled sandwich form ($10). At dinner, it's more of a build-your-own affair ($18): A platter is piled high with shaved meat, red onion, tomatoes, tzatziki and quartered pita. Both include french fries.
Pastitsio ($17), a homey Greek-style lasagna, gets a sophisticated upgrade here. Baked and served in a small crock, the pasta and ground beef casserole is rich, creamy and comforting, with warm cinnamon undertones. A crispy crumb topping adds the all-important crunch.
We enjoyed much better service in the dining room than we did seated at the bar, where the bartenders seem flustered and inattentive. It's a tradeoff given that at happy hour, bar patrons enjoy $5 plates of crispy calamari (normally $9), ouzo-steamed mussels (normally $12), and discounted cocktails like the Santorini Sunrise ($5).
The only major letdown we encountered during two visits was, ironically, that flaming Greek cheese. Despite the troubling amount of heat and flames, the cheese was neither fried, bubbling nor melty. Instead, it was cool and pasty. We'll chalk that one up to inexperience, and hope that Santorini, unlike that saganaki, is no flash in the pan.