Darker days getting you down? A new Greek taverna in Bethesda has the cure. Open since August, Yamas Mediterranean Grill is still a bit unpolished; the menu can be confusing and service can be slow. But the food is tasty, and the vibe is sunny and convivial.
The small bar in back is often full of people happily tucking into all manner of mezze (small plates). Try the generously portioned marinated octopus ($7.95) or a mound of creamy, garlic-kissed tzatziki ($5.95, with pita bread for dipping).
That's what co-owners Tony Alexis and his wife, Kelly, want you to do. Alexis was born in Sparta and moved to the United States with his parents when he was 10. He owned restaurants in Northern Virginia in the early 1980s before moving to California for school. He returned in 1992 and worked in the software business until last year, when he decided to open a laid-back, health-minded eatery that showcased his native cuisine.
On a busy day, Yamas (which has 14 tables in addition to that bar) goes through 200 pounds of exceptional gyro meat, unusual in that it is house-made: a savory blend of marinated beef and lamb that is sliced to order from a rotisserie ($6.95 for a sandwich).
We also liked the flaky, spinach-filled spanakopita ($6.95 for four) and the paidakia: tender grilled lamb chops flavored with lemon and herbs ($7.95 for three, $12.95 for six).
The horiatiki, a chunky salad of crisp cucumber, tomato, feta, onions and olives (small, $5.95; large, $8.95), would have been perfect had it not arrived shy of those last two ingredients. Green beans, though warm and generously portioned, were a bit on the greasy side and a tad too sweet (small, $2.50; large, $4.25). Avgolemono (chicken and lemon soup) is made here with orzo instead of rice; a shake or two of salt accentuates its clean citrus flavor ($3.25 per bowl).
Taking a cue from the tavernas back home, Alexis offers tis-oras, or specials of the hour. One evening's pastitsio, a hulking square of pasta, ground lamb and thick bechamel, all draped with a bright tomato sauce (lunch, $8.95; dinner, $9.95), was the ideal antidote to chilly weather. Vegetarian dolmades (grape leaves) are another huge success, bulging with a succulent mix of rice and herbs and served cold ($4.95 for four pieces).
Yamas means "To our health" in Greek, the equivalent of "Cheers!" For this lively little spot (which, by the way, stays open late on weekends), we couldn't imagine a more fitting name.
By Catherine Zuckerman (Good to Go, December 26, 2010)