Valentine’s Day had love in the air and my wife and I were prepared with reservations at Emilitsa on Congress St. As Portland’s only traditional Greek restaurant – there are a few Mediterranean joints – they quietly go about their business without too much fanfare, having been a relatively longstanding player in the Portland food scene.
I arrived a several minutes late, a victim of snowy roads and a bad street parking situation. I entered the quaint restaurant hungry and ready to take advantage of some Greek goodies. I immediately spotted my wife and took a seat. Our table was adorned with a rose which we were told was ours. The howner (host/owner) offered to take my coat, but I declined for no particular reason. He had already taken my wife’s.
The menus items are ever changing, but the sheet I had looked somewhat like that of previous visits with spreads, apps, and salads on one side and several entree options of varying meatiness on the other. The drink menu offered plenty of libations of all types. My wife said she already had an inkling about what she wanted and ordered a club soda with lime while I figured out my part.
Some thought went into what I was going to eat and when I brought it up to my valentine, we seemed to have similar ideas. First, we decided to go with three of their spreads with grilled pita bread. We chose the Htipiti – roasted jalapeno chili with whipped dodoni feta, Fava – dal lentil puree, extra virgin olive oil, slivered vidalia, and Skorthalia – potato-garlic puree. When the waitress came to take our app orders, she brought a complimentary fava spread with some crisps of bread, but we still kept that as one of our orders.
For main courses, Mrs. Portlandeater and I decided we each wanted the same two items. She settled on the Kakavia – a saffron tomato based Greek fisherman’s soup with gulf of Maine sea scallops, local hake and Bang’s Island mussels, served with toasted sesame sourdough toast. I went with Kotopoulo Souvlaki – free-range chicken breast, olive oil lemon marinade, skewered with sweet peppers, onion served with spinach spanakorizo rice pilaf and tzatziki. We were prepared to share bites with each other.
We waited for our spreads while eating the complimentary one. The fava was awesome on the crisps with the sweet onion working as the finishing touch that made a world of difference, taking the spread from really good to just plain great. Shortly after that was done, our three new ones came out. Accompanied by 10 or so pieces of pita bread, the three spreads sat in separate dishes on the same plate and were nicely garnished.
Consumption of the spreads started with the skorthalia, which was topped with a duo of Greek olives. The potato-garlic puree had a moderate vinegar and an ideal garlic flavor. The htipiti was up next and the red jalapeno and cheese spread was my favorite by a narrow margin. The flavor of the diluted pepper within the cheese created a combination that made the pita so delicious I figured I was probably in a dream. Perfectly spicy and cheesy, I could have eaten it on almost anything without concern that it might not work.
The spreads were astounding with each one carrying not only a distinct flavor, but a flavor so heavy, and yet insanely wonderful, it was hard to imagine there could be anyone who didn’t love them. I required another half order of pita to finish them all which seemed like a bonus. My last bite was of the two interwoven slices of jalapeno which topped the htipiti. Once that was done, we engaged in Valentine’s Day talk and waited for the main course.
As our meals came out, I remembered that I was going to get some cooked spinach, to which I normally have an aversion. Once it was placed in front of me however, I realized that the leaves were still intact and somewhat firm which made me think they might be okay. The waitress asked if I wanted my meat and veggies removed from the hot, sword-like skewer. I accepted that upon her recommendation, not wanting to fight with my food – I’m more of a lover, after all. As she left, she “warned” me that the tzatziki went well with not just the skewer, but the pilaf too.
My rice and perfectly cooked spinach mixture were underneath the previously skewered chicken, onions, and peppers. One side was flanked by a small cup of tzatziki and a lemon slice. On the other side sat a modest hunk of feta and two Greek olives. My wife’s soup was topped by a bunch of mussels a had two pieces of toast on the side.
A large ball of poultry caught my eye first. I took a bite and it was magnificent. The chicken was high quality, tender, and nicely spiced with just a hint of lemon zing. The veggies exhibited a similar deliciousness. When I tried the rice and spinach, I was blown away. I had the first cooked spinach I have ever actually liked and the whole concoction was absolutely delicious. Then I tried the tzatziki. The sauce, which I tend to find too thin was more the texture of a softened cream cheese, and had plenty of dill. It was outstanding.
In case my meal wasn’t enough, my wife handed over some of the seafood from her soup. I tend to love scallops, mussels, and hake, but the flavor they took on from the broth was above and beyond what I expected. So delicious were the muscles that I thought them to be some of the most flavorful I’d ever eaten. Yes, they were even better than the beer and garlic mussels I make myself. The sourdough soaked up the broth beautifully.
We finished our meals with the last mussels coming to my side of the table. When we were done, we took a hard look at a dessert menu, but were too full to get down with any. However, I give the Baklava my highest recommendation as I’ve had it a couple times it it is truly a show-stopper. We finished and paid with our meal coming to a little under $100 after tip.
I’m embarrassed to admit that, for some unknown reason, I always forget to add Emilitsa to the list when people ask me where to eat. Those days are over. With three visits there, I can now declare they are one of the absolute best restaurants in Portland and – I think it’s safe to say – the entire state. From the comfortable atmosphere, the welcoming staff, and the stunning, incredible, intensely flavorful food, it’s hard to overstate just how good Emilitsa truly is. The entire staff should be really proud of what they are doing. They are most definitely providing a high end brand of happiness to all who are lucky enough to visit.
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