2011 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Overlook the hard-to-spot location in an otherwise ordinary office building in Tysons Corner. At Nostos, you'll get a taste of Greece first in the neat, chalk-white setting and again in the cooking of chef Eugenia Markesini Hobson. Just about everything but the bread and the ice cream originates in the kitchen, a sleek spinoff of the popular Mykonos Grill in Rockville. Put the warm pita to use by ordering a few dips: whipped fish roe bright with lemon and roasted eggplant bold with garlic. I could make a meal of the mezedes, small plates - burger-size beef meatballs, tender grilled octopus, flaky spinach pie - that take into account every whim. But the entrees merit saving some room. If your server sounds excited by tonight's lamb shank or whole grilled fish, chances are you will be, too. And if decisions aren't your thing, the sampler platter is there to help. Any meal is improved with a slice of super-moist, sweetly spiced apple-walnut cake. Owner Peter Pagonis says Nostos refers to "the desire to go back to the place you were born and raised." It just might make some of us wish that place were Greece.
Throwing a pita party in Tysons Corner
Mykonos Grill owners open a sunny spinoff
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011
Joy typically is not the first reaction a diner equates with Tysons Corner, home to giant malls and more chains than Gucci Mane, but a new place to eat from an established restaurateur is acting to change that.
It helps that Nostos is Greek, one of the sunniest of cuisines. It's also useful to know that the newcomer to Vienna is a spinoff of the tried-and-true Mykonos Grill in Rockville. Peter Pagonis opened the former in May and the latter 13 years ago, after a successful run (1990-2000) with his original Mykonos in Washington Nostos is a compromise Pagonis says he made with his wife, who wanted their latest venture to be in the city. As any restaurateur can tell you, Washington isn't swimming with the kind of intimate and affordable places that small-business operators such as Pagonis prefer.
The family settled on the site of a former deli in an office building and went about transforming the real estate into a tidy, 103-seat chalk-white oasis that serves as a canvas for a collection of black-and-white photographs ranging from Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor to fishermen and farmers. An open window between the two small dining rooms is artfully set off with white mitsumata branches; the main interior acquires color from fresh roses atop each table and a rough wall of gray stone that we pause to admire. "Touch it, for good luck," a server encourages us, and so we do.
Fortune follows after we order dips. They are all pleasing, but the standouts are the clouds of whipped fish roe sparked with lemon, and the pink spread of red pepper and feta cheese. Both spreads are scooped up with pillowy folds of warm herbed pita.
I feel a blast of heat on my neck and turn to see that a neighboring table has ordered that most dramatic of Greek appetizers, saganaki. When the flames from the brandy-splashed sheep's milk cheese subside, what's left is a crisp bar of semi-melted kefalograviera that reminds me of a grilled cheese sandwich without the bread: soothing.
The description applies to many of the other mezedes, the Greek equivalent of tapas. Cod fritters look like french fries after a good workout. Crisp and golden, the robust fish fingers come with a garlic paste potent enough to ward off half of the cast of "True Blood." Beef meatballs arrive as two substantial patties, herbed and juicy, balanced with cool yogurt. Grape leaves fat with beef and rice are lightened with a drape of lemon sauce. A tender coil of octopus picks up welcome char from the grill. Meanwhile, vegetarians have a category of their own, dishes that include spanakopita, the flaky spinach pie veined with cheese, and baked eggplant layered with tomatoes and feta, a heavy assembly brightened with fresh mint in its seasoning.
The staff at Nostos is passionate about wanting you to eat well. Our waiter describes the lamb shank and the whole branzino with such enthusiasm (up go his eyebrows, out go his hands), it's impossible not to order them both. The lamb, a haunch of tender meat set on a bed of slippery orzo, tangy with tomato, is a perfect companion to Nostos Alexandra's, a spicy blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache from Manousakis Winery. The fish arrives whole and is carved at the table with the precision of a surgeon. Lemon, oregano and olive oil are the only enhancements the entree gets (or needs).
The indecisive should consider the generous sampler. A platter divided into quadrants gives its recipient a tasteful tour of Greece with one of those spinach pies, a wedge of moussaka, some of the stuffed grape leaves and slices of tender leg of lamb sauced with homey brown gravy. Pagonis calls the $19 feast "the No. 1 seller."
Greek cooking is, for the most part, uncomplicated. Starting with good ingredients is therefore imperative.
The kitchen, under the day-to-day watch of Eugenia Markesini Hobson, shows respect for the entree-accompanying vegetables, a festive mix of soft green beans, carrots that retain some crunch, cauliflower, and roasted potatoes that are slowly cooked with olive oil and oregano until they wrinkle and tan and turn into something wonderful.
The rice pudding is comforting, and I like the way the phyllo cover of the galaktoboureko crackles when I cut into the packet, giving way to a firm, not-too-sweet semolina custard. But if I were forced to choose one dessert, it would be the uber-moist apple-walnut cake. It is spicy with nutmeg and cinnamon and completed by velvety ice cream (one of the few items that's not made here).
The wine list shows off a lot of Greece, but I wish the most expensive selections weren't invariably among the staff's first recommendations. On the other hand, it's a treat to order coffee and have one's future forecast from what's left in the cup.
More often than not at Nostos, the customers around me seem to be on intimate terms with the food on their plates. "When the Greeks come," a server says one evening, nodding in their direction, "you know you're doing something right."
Yes, Nostos is.