Kefi is a Greek word (roughly) meaning passion, exuberance, joy, a lust for life. Think Zorba the Greek dancing on the beach, or the Greek custom of smashing plates. For owner John Tasiopoulos, it’s an expression that sums up how he feels about his family, his heritage and his mother’s food.
Because at its heart, that’s what Kefi Greek Tavern is—an homage to Yia Yia, John’s mother, Maria. This is authentic Greek food, prepared with love. Yia Yia herself has been in the kitchen, teaching Chef Joe Moore all of her secrets. And seeing the results at a recent visit, he’s learning, and learning well.
Third Time’s the Charm
Kefi replaces Treblemaker’s Grill, which in turn replaced the original restaurant at 27 Live. So in this case, the third time is definitely the charm. “I should’ve gone with my gut,” says Tasiopoulos. “This is the restaurant I always wanted to open here.” Good call. Because while Evanston has plenty of restaurants that serve glorified bar food (Smylie Bros., Bangers and Lace, Bar Louie and Prairie Moon among them), Kefi is the only fine-dining Greek in town.
Full disclosure: an anonymous visit here would’ve been impossible. One of Make It Better’s summer interns is also a server here, and I’ve worked with Tasiopoulos and Moore at several community fundraisers held here. So I approached this review with not a little trepidation: would the experience be worthy of a positive writeup? Happily I can tell you—yes. It actually exceeded my expectations.
John’s wife, Theresa, chose a palette of warm woods, twinkling lights and shades of blue to reflect their Greek heritage without resorting to the clichés of whitewashed stucco and posters of Greece. The most stunning piece of art is a wall-hanging that was hand woven a century ago by Tasiopoulos’ grandmother in Greece. It continues the theme of family and tradition.
Garlicky and Delicious
Start with the Melizanosalata ($6), a generous serving of roasted eggplant spread that incorporates tomato, yogurt, herbs and copious amount of garlic. It was delicious slathered on the warm Greek pita bread, or on Yia Yia’s special sesame-crusted bread, made in-house.
Saganaki ($8), flamed Kefalotyri cheese with fresh lemon, may smell a little funky but it sure tastes good. The Horiatiki Salata ($9), the classic Greek salad, which is made without lettuce, is filled with market-fresh tomatoes, tangy Greek feta, Kalamata olives, thin rings of green pepper and red onion, and some anchovies, simply dressed with Greek olive oil and red wine vinegar. Both are standard in Greektown restaurants, but I would rather steer you toward some of Kefi’s specialties.
Yia Yia’s Meatballs ($8), made of pork and beef, are a melt-in-your mouth experience. They sit atop a small amount of tomato-wine sauce; a sprightly arugula salad takes residence nearby for taste and texture contrast. I dare you to eat just one.
Cephalopod fans, rejoice. The Octapodi Skharas ($16), chunks of grilled octopus served with chickpeas, artichokes, roasted peppers and a kalamata olive-thickened vinaigrette, is a terrific, well-executed dish that’s filled with flavor. This octopus is exceedingly tender; the final wood grilling gives it a bit of smoke and char.
Salmon Can Be Spectacular
One of our favorite entrees was the Solomos Skharas Meh Hilopites ($18). On many menus, grilled salmon is a snooze. Not so here, where it is perfectly seasoned, then grilled and served over a bed of house-made Greek rag pasta tossed in what is essentially an avgolemono sauce. The pasta sheets are rolled thin, cut in strips, then into tiny squares. The sauce is like a Greek version of alfredo, a little lemony, a little creamy, with some dill thrown in for good measure.
We enjoyed the Garides Saganaki ($19), plump pan-fried shrimp in a thick stew of onions, peppers, garlic and olives, topped with a crumble of feta, as well as the Ami Yuvetsi ($25), a large grass-fed lamb shank slow-cooked the traditional style in a clay pot and served with orzo tossed with tomatoes and house-made Megithra cheese, though I would’ve preferred a little more sauce on the lamb.
Don’t miss the “single portions” of the classic Greek casseroles, Moussaka ($15) and Pastichio ($15). Single portions for who, I wonder? These easily serve two. The Moussaka was the best dish of the night—layers of spiced ground beef, potatoes, roasted eggplant and peppers, all topped with a fluffy yogurt béchamel sauce. The Pastichio is the “Greek lasagna,” with bucatini noodles standing in for the pasta sheets and the ground beef scented with cinnamon.
Good Greek Honey is the Key
Desserts are limited to three: Baklava (baked filo dough layered with chopped nuts and honey); creamy and tart Greek yogurt drizzled with honey and gilded with toasted walnuts; and the star of the show, Galaktobouriko, a creamy custard thickened with farina, sweetened with honey and layered with filo dough and baked. The fresher it is, the better, especially when it’s served warm.
It’s a treat to have true Greek cuisine woven into the fabric of downtown Evanston. I look forward to my next visit.
Kefi Greek Tavern
1014 Church St.
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