When he decided to open a new Greek restaurant on Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown, John Zoulis knew he wanted to feature dishes that moved beyond the usual moussaka, souvlaki, and fried calamari so often found on Greek-American menus.
Enter Estiatorio Plaka, named after the historic neighborhood near the Acropolis in Athens and open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Though you will find the usual offerings, like eggplant dip, grape leaves, and a truly exceptional moussaka, as well as respectable renditions of souvlaki and fried calamari, there are also less familiar dishes fashioned from recipes passed down by Zoulis’ Greek-born maternal grandmother, Evagelia.
Offerings like braised lamb shank served with rice pilaf and delicate dolmades, or the Cretan dakos salad (think Greek panzanella) made with Greek barley rusk, cherry tomatoes, and fetalike manouri goat cheese, are far from what you typically find even in the heart of Baltimore’s Greek community.
“We are trying to introduce new flavors and tastes to Baltimore,” says Zoulis. “We wanted to carry some new dishes that have never been in the area before.”
The entrepreneur, who also owns G&M in Linthicum Heights, is a real-estate developer by day, but he’s equally passionate about hospitality. His interest was piqued at an early age when his father, Minas, opened Tom’s Restaurant of Seinfeld fame on the Upper West Side of New York. “I always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” says Zoulis, who was born in New York City but whose roots remain on the Aegean island of Kasos, where his family is from.
After years in the making, the restaurant at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Oldham Street is like something straight out of the Greek islands, with its sun-dappled dining room, stucco, stone, and light wood surfaces, and décor details such as clay vases sourced from the island of Sifnos.
The menu also reflects Zoulis’ love of country, with all the fish flown in daily from the Mediterranean and a wine list filled with Hellenic highlights. On our visit, must-order appetizers included the salty-sweet combination of feta baked in phyllo. The rectangle of cheese was enrobed in a blanket of dough, baked until it softened, trickled with thyme-infused honey, then showered with sesame seeds.
Another classic, the grilled octopus slicked with olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano, was a great way to start the meal. The one disappointment was a whole baked bronzino, served simply with olive oil, oregano, and garlic. It was a tad overcooked and could have used a little more zing. The red snapper, a generous filet of flavorful fish sitting atop a bed of dill-flecked tomato orzo, was a more successful offering.
Dessert is not optional here, as all of the sweets are made in-house and can be previewed from behind the glass case at the adjacent bakeshop. The baklava, tissue-thin layers of phyllo laced with walnuts and pistachios, is an excellent example of the Greek treat, but the orange cake portokalopita—redolent of sun, sea and the sweetness of island life—will truly transport you.
ESTIATORIO PLAKA 4718 Eastern Ave., 443-833- 0330. HOURS: Sun.-Thurs., 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. PRICES: Appetizers: $9-22; entrees: $20-33; desserts: $5-9