Unrated during the pandemic

Aris Tsekouras never had to audition for the top cooking slot at the new Melina in North Bethesda. His bread, which he promoted on Instagram, did the job for him. One taste of the chef’s koulouri, or sesame sourdough, was sufficient proof of talent for the restaurateur who ended up hiring him at the modern Greek establishment.

“So much love into something simple,” says Dimitri Moshovitis, among the founders of Cava, the Mediterranean fast-casual brand. “This is the guy I want to run this restaurant.”

Melina joins Julii, an upscale French-Mediterranean restaurant, also from the Cava creators, in the high-end Pike & Rose complex. The fresh face borrows the name of Moshovitis’s 12-year-old daughter and honors the influence of matriarchs in the owners’ business, says Moshovitis, whose co-founders include Ted Xenohristos and Ike Grigoropoulos. Created in 2011, Cava has grown to more than 150 stores. Introduced in November, Melina is already one of the best restaurants to alight in Montgomery County in recent memory.

You can taste what I mean by asking for the tuna tataki. Slices of raw tuna are nothing new, but they seem novel when they’re fanned over a base of crumbled cauliflower jump-started with pickled mustard seeds, enlivened with lemon dressing and ringed with shimmering chive oil. A quick encounter with a blow torch gives the tuna a rosy complexion.

Raise your hand if you’ve seen beef tartare on a menu. Is that a sea of hands going up? No appetizer has had more exposure during the pandemic, partly because it’s a smart use of meat trimmings when restaurants are trying to be as frugal as possible. Melina rewards takers with raw beef shot through with minced pickled cabbage, pickled mustard seeds, cured lemon — ingredients associated with Greece’s beloved stuffed cabbage, but topped off here with a crisp rice cracker.

Octopus makes almost as many appearances on restaurant menus as beef tartare. The version at Melina is Greek to the extent the grilled seafood arrives with balsamic vinegar and fava bean puree, along with luscious caramelized onions. The elusive floral note wafting from the dish, which is brightened with a parsley emulsion enriched with the octopus-braising liquid, turns out to be vanilla, which the chef adds as contrast to the salinity of the centerpiece.

The skewers show a sense of thinking outside the forum, too. Part of the appeal of the grilled chicken thighs is the “Greek coleslaw,” crunchy with carrots, celery and cabbage and sweetened with a honey-mustard dressing. Portobello mushrooms are roasted and grilled, then threaded on a skewer and displayed on smoked graviera cream, its flavor reminiscent of gruyere. Cured egg yolk garnishes the top; hazelnut-miso praline hides below. (Remember, we’re talking modern Greek cooking here, not old-school.)

The chef’s ethereal cavatelli is as good as I’ve encountered in any area Italian eatery. Made with semolina but no eggs, the pillowy bites are draped with a zippy tomato sauce and sweetened with shrimp. A dusting of nori powder accentuates the sea flavor.

The setting doesn’t scream “GREECE!” Instead, Melina creates a subdued sense of place with life-size (faux) olive and lemon trees, roomy booths flanked with mirrors at eye level, and a muted feminine palette to underscore its name. The lighting is soft, theater-length white curtains dress up the floor-to-ceiling window, and the host makes his rounds in a suit, giving his audience the sense we’re not all going to a hell in a hand basket after all.

A lot of thought has gone into the experience. The handsome restrooms are stocked with changing tables — black ones, to match the walls. And when I ask a young server if he has sampled the Greek red wine I’m considering, he’s honest with me when he says, “I’m only 19, but I know my tasting notes.”

A lot of people know their jobs here, most of all Tsekouras, who was born in New Jersey, left for Greece when he was 4, went to culinary school in Athens and worked under the award-winning Yiannis Lucacos. Upon his return to the United States in 2016, Tsekouras opened Vasili’s Kitchen in Gaithersburg, which he left in 2020 to launch his since-closed baking business.

Diners can see why Tsekouras got his job here by tucking into a basket of warm-from-the-oven bread — some nights whole-wheat sourdough, other times a Greek ringer for focaccia called lagana — accompanied by lovely changing spreads. Picture herbed olive oil, or house-smoked butter.

If there’s a dish that transports me to Sunday in Athens, it’s the lamb neck. Plied with velvety roasted red peppers, the $42 feast is served in the folds of parchment paper with pinches of nutty kefalograviera cheese and trailed by a fleet of side dishes, including nuggets of fried potato and pickled red onion. The slow-roasted meat — crisp edges, clinging fat, succulence throughout — peels away from the bone at the touch of a fork. Waiters instruct diners to take the oregano-freckled sourdough pita, slather on some ginger-spiked tzatziki and follow it with lamb — and whatever else they care to pack in — to make a customized gyro.

“It makes me very happy when guests use their hands to eat,” says Tsekouras, who can observe the dining room from his open kitchen. It makes me very happy to report this is one of the finest sandwiches in the market. Four could have enjoyed the bounty, but two made a substantial dent.

Greek doughnuts arrive on a golden tray with a passel of fun condiments. Some of the hot orbs are pasty inside. The dessert reminds me of Padrón peppers, in that you never know what to expect (hot or not?) when you bite down. That said, even underdone doughnuts fare better in the company of vanilla ice cream, chopped walnuts, thyme-laced honey and a heady chaser of spiced chilled chocolate milk.

Moshovitis gets referenced as a co-chef, but the restaurateur says Tsekouras pilots the kitchen. Of their initial collaboration, the owner says, “He would cook and I would eat.”

Sounds like a dream job there.

Melina. 905 Rose Ave., North Bethesda. 301-818-9090. melinagreek.com. Open for indoor dining 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Mezze $12 to $20, main courses $20 to $44. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: No barriers at entrance; ADA-compliant restrooms.

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