Review

Kipos raises the bar for Greek cuisine

CorrespondentOctober 17, 2013 

  • Kipos

    431 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill

    919-425-0760

    kiposgreektaverna.com

    Cuisine: Greek

    Rating:* * * * 

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: boisterous contemporary take on a Greek taverna

    Noise level: high

    Service: welcoming, generally attentive with lapses when busy

    Recommended: take your pick

    Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Sunday

    Reservations: recommended

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking on street and in the lot behind the restaurant.

    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.

Editor's note: This review said Kipos in Chapel Hill is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday. But the Greek restaurant is open Tuesday-Sunday.

The name Giorgios Bakatsias has become locally synonymous with “prolific restaurateur,” and deservedly so. Over the past three decades, Bakatsias has given the Triangle so many restaurants I’ve lost count. Not all have been successful, but his batting average is impressive – all the more so given the wide variety of his ventures. His current portfolio covers the spectrum from contemporary Mediterranean (Parizade) to mall burger joint (Village Burgers), and includes two strong candidates for best-in-class: the French bistro Vin Rouge and steakhouse Bin 54. No question about it, Bakatsias has one of the most fertile restaurant-creating minds the Triangle has ever seen.

But Kipos, which Bakatsias opened in March in Chapel Hill, comes straight from the heart. While a number of his restaurants have touched tangentially on the flavors of his native Greece over the years, Kipos is the first to celebrate authentic Greek cuisine exclusively.

And exuberantly. It’s as if a straightforward restaurant couldn’t contain all those childhood memories. Near the entrance, one corner of the sprawling dining room is devoted to a café and bakery that offers a tempting display of house-baked breads and pastries starting at 9 a.m. every day but Saturday (when it opens at 4 p.m.). The well-stocked bar offers a superb selection of Greek wines and a front-row view of the open kitchen. Around back, a takeout shop called Kalamaki specializes in Greek street food.

The main attraction, however, is Kipos: a restaurant that raises the bar for Greek cuisine to – well, it’s tempting to say to Olympian heights. Certainly no other Greek restaurant in the area comes close.

The menu encompasses the full spectrum of Greek fare, from cold and hot appetizers (mezedes) to an entree offering that includes rotisserie-roasted meats, pastitsio and other classic casseroles, and a healthy selection of seafood and vegetarian fare.

A separate category labeled “Olga’s Handmade Phyllo Pies” offers spanakopita and tiropita, a sort of leek quiche with a phyllo crust. Be advised that Olga is Bakatsias’ sister, and that “handmade” includes the laborious process of rolling out phyllo dough to translucent thinness. Ordering at least one of these is a must.

Then again, it could be argued that pretty much everything on the menu is a must. You certainly won’t go wrong by starting off with melitzanosalata, Greece’s walnut-studded roasted eggplant answer to baba ghanoush, served with house-baked pita. Or with exemplary fried calamari, or if you’re a little more adventurous, supremely tender grilled octopus tossed with fresh herbs in a lemon vinaigrette. Or scallops kataifi, which serves up a couple of impeccably seared day boat-size specimens topped with crisp threads of shredded wheat.

You get the idea. Entrees are likewise a can’t-lose proposition. If I had to pick a personal favorite, it would probably be the grilled whole branzino, served with half a lemon and olive oil for drizzling, and a side of vegetables that would do a Greek household proud.

On a chilly fall night, though, it would be hard to pass up a hearty helping of moussaka: a cinnamon-tinged melange of local beef and eggplant, blanketed with oven-blistered béchamel, and served in in the rustic earthenware dish it was baked in.

I wouldn’t say no to the fisherman’s stew, either, a fragrant brew of tomato and white wine chockablock with impeccable fish and shellfish. And I’d gladly indulge in an encore performance of lamb steaks, rotisserie roasted and finished on a wood-fired grill, or rotisserie-roasted chicken or pork, for that matter.

Choosing doesn’t get any easier when it comes to dessert. Do you go with baklava, the pastry (again, that hand-rolled phyllo) so crisp it shatters when you pierce it with a fork? Or karithopita, a moist walnut cake redolent of Christmas spices and garnished with creme fraiche? I vote one of each.

The wait staff are unfailingly welcoming and generally attentive, though some can stumble when the dining room is busy – which in my experience it usually is. The level of service never drops to frustrating levels, but given the high standard set by the kitchen, it stands out as the weak link in the Kipos experience.

Unless you’re not partial to a noisy setting, that is. The main dining room’s polished concrete floors, bare wood tabletops and buoy-like glass globe light fixtures, suspended from high ceilings by thick ropes, effectively capture the spirit of a Greek taverna. That includes a taverna-like boisterous decibel level.

When he was informed of my upcoming review, Giorgios Bakatsias sent me a short email. It was mostly a sort of stream of consciousness flowing from the culmination of a long career back to its childhood source, and reads in part: “Mostly in my childhood memories ... In the garden with my mother ... Lucky to have my sister Olga cooking ... She learned well from our mother Panagiota ... also cooked professionally in Greece – my brother Theodore butchers whole animals – and fish ... cooks on wood fire – So have everybody working ... Truly a joy to have food that nourished you growing up ... When Olga’s whole pies, with homemade phyllo come out of the oven – was the first to get the end cut ... Now the same ...”

Help yourself, Mr. Bakatsias. You’ve earned it.

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

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