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Hankering for the grills and thrills of Greek cuisine

by Alex Dutson

Staff Writer

Few things in this world are more pleasurable than sinking your teeth into heavily herbed, charcoal-grilled paidakia, the fabled lamb chops adored and revered by the Greeks.

“The art is in the grilling,” says Savvas Mallouri, Cypriot father of a longtime friend and a man who can really wax eloquent when it comes to his favorite meat. “There’s a deep and special sweetness unlocked by the combination of salt, hot coals and time.”

He’s right, too. Somewhere between the soft, sweet fat, earthy oregano and dusty charcoal lies a gustatory intensity perhaps unique to lamb, but characteristic in some way of all the tried-and-true staples of Greek cooking — flaky spanakopita (spinach, ricotta cheese and feta pie), zesty kalamarakia tiganita (fried squid) and aromatic dolmadakia (vine leaves stuffed with rice, dill and mint). And that’s without even mentioning the saganaki cheese melt — a veritable umami carnival in your mouth.

Perhaps it’s this intensity that makes Greek food so hard to find in Japan. Do a quick Internet search and you’ll find that even in Tokyo, a city of some 88,000 restaurants, the total number of Greek eateries doesn’t reach 10. And that, to my mind, makes it important to find out what those few establishments were doing right.

My first port of call was Sparta (045-253-1645; 3-7 Yoshida-machi, Naka-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture; www.sparta.jp), a kitschy ode to the Greek taverna where mismatched wooden chairs and plastic garden furniture rub up uneasily against hand-painted murals of cobalt blue seas and whitewashed villas. Opened in 1953 by shipman Elias Skantzos, the restaurant claims to be Japan’s oldest Greek eatery, and at the time of my visit was populated mostly by local diners in their 40s and 50s who were at ease with the waiting staff.

Though it’s a bit of an aesthetic mishmash, Sparta does hearty Greek very well. The saganaki, made with graviera cheese, was perhaps the jewel in the crown, arriving white and creamy at the center with the edges seared off into a filigree gold braid, and accompanied by a little cluster of stuffed, pickled tomatoes that popped with a palate-cleansing burst of vinegar. The arni paidakia also hit the spot, being well done yet tender, and packing all the classic Greek flavors — garlic, thyme, oregano, basil and bay leaf. The piney aroma of a traditional retsina, picked from the wine list, provided the perfect counterpoint to the lamb’s sweet richness.

Next on the list was Spyro’s (03-3796-2677; 2F 3-15-24 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; www.spyros.biz/english.html) This hip spot in Roppongi has a younger crowd and a more modern feel, with smaller, elegant portions. Notable were the bakaliaros, parcels of fresh cod encased in batter and served with a sauce made with zesty lemon, olive oil and mashed potato. But the real revelation was the spanakopita. This was everything a spinach pie should be — a perfectly formed, flaky filo triangle that crunched loudly in the mouth, oozing forth an exquisite balance of hearty spinach and rich, creamy feta cheese.

Spyros has a pretty extensive menu, with ouzo-steamed seafood and traditional fasolada (a thick, soul-warming white bean, carrot and celery soup) appearing alongside more well-known dishes. There was also a sweet, cloying slice of baklava (a rich pastry made with layers of walnuts, almonds and honey) to go with the coffee. And while the portion sizes and presentation are a world away from what you’d expect in Greece, there’s a clear premium on using fresh ingredients. As an added bonus, a selection of feta and halloumi cheeses, olives and other imported foods are available to take away from the chilled counter by the bar.

Where Sparta is homely and Spyro’s is trendy, Kaze no Kura (03-3025-1020; 2-18-9 Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; www.kaze-no-kura.net) is decidedly wafū, its dim, moody lighting, wooden beams and Kosta Boda glassware suggesting a deliberate attempt to meld Mediterranean cooking with a more refined Japanese aesthetic.

“Location is really important. You can’t just bring food back in its original style. For Japanese, the flavors really need to be simple and well matched,” says Yohei Hayashi, the restaurant’s manager and owner.

The idea of pared-back, harmonious flavors was evident in each of the dishes. The saganaki, for example, was a bronzed, neatly cut square of goat’s, cow’s and sheep’s cheeses, filled with a finely chopped mint that balanced out its inherent richness, while the mezes of taramasolata, hummus and tsatziki arrived elegantly in a trio of leaf-shaped bowls along with eight small, warm triangles of pita bread flecked with fresh olive oil.

The souvlaki was the biggest win. While the restaurant serves both swordfish and pork varieties, I plumped for the latter, and was rewarded with a mouthwatering spit chocked full of colorful red and yellow roasted peppers, onion and juicy chunks of garlicky, aromatic pork.

Not all the Greek restaurants in Japan are confined to Tokyo. Osaka residents might consider the stylish Alla Pace (06-0643-1153; 3-8-9 Fukushima, Fukushima-ku, Osaka; www.allapace.com), which offers a similar menu with all the classic Greek favorites. And for a bit of home cooking, Nostimia (www.nostimia.com), whose moniker comes from the Greek for “delicious,” has a fair selection of imported olives, yogurts and cheeses and ships anywhere in Japan.

Alex Dutson is a buttery young gentleman from Yorkshire, England, whose critiques of onion gravy are revered the world over.