A menu steeped in Greek traditions and modern tastes

CorrespondentDecember 10, 2010 

  • 4139 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham



    Cuisine: Greek

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$$

    Atmosphere: casual blend of traditional and contemporary

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: welcoming, variably experienced

    Recommended: house antipasto, whole Mediterranean sea bass, kebabs, rack of lamb, lamb shank, baklava

    Open: lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sunday.

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories:

    Extraordinary Excellent.

    Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

On the wall just inside the entrance to Spartacus is a collection of sepia-toned photographs, most of them portraits of a family that for three generations has been in the restaurant business. Nondas Kalfas, who opened Spartacus with partner John Drury in 1993, is the grandson of Vassilios Makros, who opened a cafeteria in Winston-Salem upon returning home from World War II.

One of the portraits, taken in the late 1940s, judging by her clothes and hairstyle, is of a young woman. If you happen to be dining at Spartacus on a Friday or Saturday night, you might find yourself doing a double take when you see that same face - 60 years older but still strikingly beautiful - greeting you at the host stand.

She is Helen Vurnakes, and though she is not, technically speaking, a member of the family, everyone calls her Mama. She has worked at Spartacus since its opening, and though you wouldn't know it from her Southern accent, she comes from a family of Greek restaurateurs herself.

Besides providing a warm and gracious welcome, Vurnakes is the essence of what Spartacus is: steeped in tradition while eagerly embracing new people and new ideas. This year has brought a healthy dose of both.

The dining room was given a makeover in the summer, with new upholstery, ecru linens and soft earth tones on the walls giving the space a lighter, more open look. Even the black ceiling and drab brown rattan chairs got fresh coats of crisp white paint.

The decor sets the stage for new chef Dimitri Roussos, whose creations have been welcomed into the Spartacus fold of traditional Greek fare. Roussos' signature grilled whole Mediterranean sea bass, which frequently makes an appearance among the nightly specials written in chalk on one wall, is a keeper. Its flesh moist under a delicately crisped skin that glistens with extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper, the fish is at once the personification of Greek culinary tradition and as refreshing as an Aegean breeze.

Seafood stew, another sometime special featuring sea scallops, Boston cod, baby shrimp and vegetables in a roasted garlic- and dill-punctuated broth, is solidly executed, if not as memorable.

Braised lamb shank, on the other hand, deserves its status as a permanent fixture on the specials board. Fork-tender and redolent of oregano and thyme, it's served with garlicky skin-on mashed potatoes and chef's choice of vegetables (recently including a delightful eggplant-stuffed roasted tomato).

For all its changes, Spartacus has not forgotten its loyal customers, of whom there are many. The restaurant does a thriving catering business and frequently hosts large celebration parties, with lines stretching from buffet tables in a private room well into the main dining room. The menu of longstanding favorites remains largely unchanged.

Shareable mezedes-style samplers are still popular, and for the most part deservedly so. The vegetarian house antipasto platter is solid across the board, with lemony stuffed grape leaves and the rustic eggplant dip melitzanosalata being standouts. Grilled marinated pork and chicken are succulent on the mezedakia sampler, but the phyllo crust on the cheese and spinach pies can sometimes be soggy.

Saganaki isn't strictly authentic - it's made with a blend of cheeses, including a good bit of mozzarella, and it's offered in three versions: plain, with tomatoes or with chopped spinach. But the flambé presentation and waiter's accompanying shout of "Opa!" are still worth the price of admission.

The entree offering includes a good sampling of Greek classics, from pastitsio and moussaka to lemon herb chicken and lamb shish kebabs. Grilled rack of lamb is billed as a house specialty, and deservedly so.

Nor will traditionalists be disappointed with the dessert offering, which includes a textbook walnut baklava made by Nondas Kalfas' mother, Ralitsa, who owned the original Spartacus in New York with her husband, Kyriakos Kalfas, before retiring (sort of) to North Carolina.

The menu also includes a number of dishes that might best be described as "Greek-inspired," among them gyro pizzette, spinach- and feta-stuffed chicken breast, and grilled salmon with lemon dill sauce. And if some dishes - crab cakes, say, or shrimp and chicken teriyaki - seem out of place, well, it helps to think of them as just another example of the Spartacus family's welcoming embrace.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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