The short stretch of commercial space on MacArthur Avenue is small enough that any new business that springs up there is notable. When Demi's Mediterranean Kitchen opened, taking the place of Omega Grecian Restaurant, it joined long-established businesses such as Dot's Back Inn, Stir Crazy and Zorba's Express, plus a few newcomers, such as its next-door neighbor, Mi Jalisco. North Side residents like me tend to be loyal to our local commercial strip. We can walk there, have a decent meal at a good price and be home in time to relieve the babysitter without racking up an enormous bill.
Dot's Back Inn owner Jimmy Tsamouras, along with his wife Daniella, wanted to create a place where he could stretch his culinary imagination beyond what the small kitchen across the street allows. So, the couple opened Demi's, named after their young daughter. It's a beautiful and welcoming space, sleek and modern, with plenty of softening wood accents.
The menu reflects the Mediterranean in the name, with options from around the sea's coastline. Greek and Italian options dominate, with Greek classics such as souvlaki ($12) and spanakopita ($7), and Italian dishes such as pasta fagioli soup ($4/$7) or chicken piccata ($14). Occasional Spanish dishes slip in and a few more expand the geographical options even further, such as a side of French ratatouille ($4). One quibble — although referred to as Turkish mussels ($10), the shellfish are served in a broth spiced with harissa, a North African condiment. Nonetheless, you can complete a culinary tour of the region in one night if your dining party is big enough.
The menu provides options for how to construct your dinner. With plenty of appetizers, dips, soups and salads, you can put together a satisfying array of small plates to share. If you prefer the more American way of dining with individual entrees, almost an entire page of the menu is dedicated to you, with pastas, kebabs and other dishes vying for your attention.
Starting off the meal, the spanakopita has a decent ration of phyllo to filling with moderately spiced spinach and feta hitting all the right notes. It's not quite as good as what you can get at the Greek Festival, but it's year-round and far more accessible than a trip to Athens. The dips turn out to be my favorite options (2 for $6, 3 for $8, 4 for $10). Melitzanosalata, a Greek cousin of baba ghanouj, features chunky roasted eggplant instead of the traditional puree, providing a nice texture. The garlicky artichoke tapenade is an equal mix of chopped olives and artichoke hearts, studded with roasted red peppers, all coated in an excellent, slightly fruity olive oil. The tzatziki, thick Greek yogurt flavored with plenty of fresh dill, accompanying the crispy fried eggplant ($7) — basically eggplant fries — is a worthy take on the classic.
Unfortunately, on each of my visits, anything with meat is a slight disappointment. Pork souvlaki is overcooked and dry. The grilled octopus' smaller pieces arrive charred and inedible ($12), and the larger ones are too chewy. Fried calamari ($12) suffers a similar fate, though it isn't so overcooked as to be ignored. My dining companion and I eat most of it but comment on every bite about the slightly too-tough texture. Out of the fryer perhaps a minute earlier and the dish would have been perfect.
A twist on Italian puttanesca features grilled salmon on top of a bed of penne, swimming in a delightfully pungent and briny sauce ($16). Capers and olives complement the basic tomato underpinning that lends it a classic flavor, but unfortunately the salmon itself is underwhelming — a tad dry — and needs the sauce to make up for its own lack of seasoning.
Despite these disappointments, there's a silver lining — the trouble seems to be less with dishes' conception and more to do with execution. On one visit the restaurant is slammed, every table full and most of the bar as well, while on another there's only one table occupied. I'm wagering this is the result of a new kitchen finding its stride and ironing out some basic issues — perhaps the cooking time of its wide variety of proteins. Judging from Dot's, the owners clearly know how to run a consistent kitchen.
A good meal can be had here, and I'm holding out hope for improvements across the board. Whatever course you choose, I recommend ending with galatobouriko ($5), a mildly sweet milky custard topped with crispy phyllo dough, that served as a beautiful Greek finale to the meal.
Demi's Mediterranean Kitchen
Tuesdays-Thursdays 5–10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 5-11 p.m.; Sundays 5–9 p.m.
4017 MacArthur Ave.