Sam Papanikas was, you might say, born with olive oil in his veins – type EVOO, no doubt, and indisputably Greek.
Papanikas’ parents ran the estimable Papas Grille in Durham for nearly two decades. He grew up in the restaurant, watching and learning as his native Greek father, Kleanthis, turned out spanakopita, lamb chops and other classics, and his mother, Angelika, oversaw the dining room with Old World charm.
It was only natural, then, that the son would take over when his father retired. But when Kleanthis Papanikas handed over the reins last year, Sam wasn’t content merely to pick them up. The young chef had a few ideas of his own.
He put them into practice last November, when he opened Bleu Olive Bistro in the old Papas Grille space. Along with the name change came a complete dining room makeover. Gone are the lace curtains, blue tablecloths and Mediterranean market mural. In their place, abstract art, bare wood tabletops and an open kitchen set a more modern tone.
While the new restaurant’s menu remains rooted in Greece, it now wanders freely all around the shores of the Mediterranean, from French bouillabaisse to Sicilian caponata. Occasionally, the chef ventures further afield – to England for fish and chips, say, or an excursion into the contemporary territory of port-glazed pork belly over crispy blue cheese polenta.
Regardless of which destination you choose, you’re in for a rewarding journey.
Kefte – flame-grilled ovals of ground lamb, blanketed with a bright tomato sauce and crumbled feta – are a fine point of departure. So are house-made dolmades, their arborio rice filling punctuated with pine nuts and redolent of lemon and dill.
Adventurous palates will delight in grilled octopus: exceptionally tender bite-size nubbins of tentacle, spattered with a briny kalamata relish and flanked by a small salad of arugula and pickled onion. Those who prefer to stick to familiar territory will find the fried calamari just as rewarding, and served in a shareable portion.
If your entree itinerary takes you to France, you’ll find the steak frites worth a visit. The hanger steak is authentically chewy-tender and loaded with beefy savor, and the shoestring fries are textbook.
Hop over to Spain, where only a stickler for authenticity would quibble over Papanikas’ contemporary riff on paella, a toothsome medley of jumbo shrimp, mussels, calamari, succulent shreds of chicken breast and saffron risotto.
Or set your coordinates for northern Italy, where a lamb bolognese studded with cremini mushrooms over linguine offers rustic comfort that should be especially welcome in the cool nights to come.
On the other hand, given Papanikas’ culinary pedigree, it should come as no surprise that you won’t go wrong by staying in Greece. Moussaka, shrimp tourkolimano, spinach- and feta-stuffed chicken breast “a la Grecque” – take your pick.
Tempting as all these are, I personally find the fish of the day nearly impossible to resist. The featured fish is typically not your run-of-the-mill variety, for starters, but likely to be something like corvina or cobia. It’s reliably fresh, too, and expertly cooked – in this case, the chef’s lavish take on plaki style: baked with lemon and herbs, served over orzo pasta, and topped with a colorful patchwork of sautéed spinach, fennel, roasted red peppers and plum tomatoes.
Papanikas is similarly deft at marrying tradition and innovation when it comes to desserts. His goat cheese cheesecake, for instance, is a precise balance of sweetness and tang on a crust of crushed pistachios and Graham crackers, garnished with more pistachios and a drizzle of honey. His baklava, which raises the ante with golden raisins and an artful presentation of bias-cut phyllo cylinders stood on end, is baked to order. It’s worth the 10-minute or so wait.
A thoughtfully chosen wine list is roughly equally divided between Old and New World labels, with some 18 wines offered by the glass. Taking its cue from the menu, the list devotes separate sections to the wines of countries bordering the Mediterranean.
For all its changes, Bleu Olive Bistro is still a Papanikas family restaurant. Angelika Papanikas can still be seen in the dining room, often waiting tables herself. Just a couple of weeks ago, the family celebrated the 19th anniversary of the opening of Papas Grille, a tradition that they clearly aim to continue unbroken. No doubt they will do just that for years to come.
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