I wish it were prettier. I wish the wine list were better thought-out and the bar not so lonely looking. When I go out to eat, I like ambiance: lower lights, comfortable seats, sexy wine glasses. Naturally the food served is paramount, but a little push in the surroundings department doesn't hurt.
Sitting next to a Blockbuster in a strip mall doesn't conjure up romance or even slow eating, so a case is built against Greek Islands before you set foot into the door or pass its empty patio gazing onto Broad Street. The curious silence (even the flat screen is on mute) doesn't help the argument.
But on my first visit, I'm pleased to find attentive service and a knowledgeable wait staff. Questions are answered and suggestions given with experience. We settle on an appetizer and two sampler entrees. Greek Islands is an excellent place for those who can't make up their minds, because its menu offers many tasting opportunities.
Saganaki ($7.50), a Greek cheese dish, is typically aflame when served. Sadly, Greek Islands must adhere to a Virginia code and cannot grill up their cheese tableside. It suffers greatly and manages to come off a huge awkward glob. Faring better is the Greek sampler ($14.95). An amalgamation of specialties packed onto a large dinner plate, this requires hunting through an unbelievable amount of cheese (can you have too much cheese?) to locate sweet and savory moussaka and a tasty pasticcio. Laden with cinnamon and nutmeg and an airy yet thick bAcchamel, both are close to the category of heavenly.
The Mediterranean sampler, while adequate, is a letdown when compared with the more well-known Greek entrees. Lasagna and ravioli (both cheese and meat versions) seem afterthoughts Lost under another mound of cheese, the manicotti borders on bland.
On another visit I try the mezedes platter (a selection of small appetizers for $17.95). It's large enough to feed four with leftovers and includes such delights as dolmas, tiropita, gyro and calamari. The tiropita are addicting. These little Greek grilled cheeses are tarter than others I've sampled, making it easy to gorge. The spanakopita brings a frozen spinach taste without which these would be stellar.
I keep straying back to the gyro meat and find myself stealing most of it from my dinner companion. Juicy and with a subtle kick of pepper, the meat is crispy and flat. The dolmas are stuffed with beef and rice, served piping hot. A tip: Remove your tiropita and spanakopita as soon as you are served this appetizer — it will keep them from becoming soggy from the dolmas.
I try the veal parmigiana and experience a brief moment of jubilation to see that the red sauce served over a massive hunk of veal is sweet and dark with spice (same as the moussaka from my previous visit). Nondescript store-bought spaghetti adds a cheap aspect, easily rectified. Souvlakia with rice is the only real failure of Greek Islands. Meat that's dry with too much parsley is accompanied by gummy rice and a tasteless fingerling potato. Both dishes are colossal and can be shared, though I would most certainly lean toward veal.
A few tweaks here and there, a light dimmer and perhaps a Greek alcohol offering, and Greek Islands could become a go-to in the West End. For now I suggest takeout in large quantities. S
Greek Islands ($$)
9503C W. Broad St.
Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m.
Friday 5-10 p.m.
Saturday 4:30-10 p.m.
Sunday Noon-8 p.m.