It’s the place that Food and Wine forgot. TV personality Andrew Zimmern may never add this Greek gem to his Where to Eat and Drink in Portland. Say “Emilitsa” and most Portlanders scratch their beards. Yet for all that, this upscale Greek restaurant on Congress Street is one of the brightest spots in Maine’s foodiest city. “Enter as strangers, leave as friends,” is their motto. And start planning a repeat visit.
Juicy duck that melts in your mouth. Nutty, flaky baklava infused with clove and honey. A medley of asparagus, toasted walnuts and farm chèvre tossed in mint tarragon dressing. Artisan mushrooms served with pan-fried eggplant on a bed of wilted kale and farro, the entire mess drizzled in top-shelf olive oil — what’s not to like?
Since 2008 this 50-seat romantic restaurant with perfect lighting has been quietly turning out pan-seared halibut, lamb sliders, moussaka, and all manners of Mediterranean cuisine for diners smart enough to keep mum on their favorite find.
In Portland there is no dearth of dining spots. You could eat your way through a trove of infantile bistros nightly. But amid the rush of the new, those still standing year after year after year like Emilitsa survive for a reason. “A lot of restaurants fall by the wayside,” said co-owner John Regas. “The good ones stick around.”
After previewing Emilitsa’s summer menu at a recent tasting for food writers, I second that emotion. Almost everyone stayed put long after the Greek coffee, served with an ethereal DIY cream puff, was drained. It wasn’t just the free-range baby back lamb ribs slowly braised with Greek mountain herbs that had us, it was the warm embrace of family. Two brothers. One son.
This summer Emilitsa, run by John and Demos Regas, enters a new phase. Demo’s son Niko officially takes over the executive reins in the kitchen. Junior, as Niko is called, learned to cook from his father as well as celeb chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
By using his grandmother’s traditional recipes from the Greek isles, the 32-year-old reaches back three generations.
According to family lore, his grandmother Emilitsa served her brined, skewered and braised meat dishes and stuffed grape leaves with divine tzatziki sauce to her church parish as her husband cooked American meatloaf in a cafe downstairs from their home. Both were hits. Their sons and now grandson carry on the tradition of their heritage fare. “We are family, so it’s not always easy” said Demo, who at 66 is still a force in the kitchen. “We have our moments.”
Their collective pride in their authentic Greek cuisines shines through.
A pair of new Mediterranean spots recently washed ashore in the Old Port. These bigger, flashier restaurants have definitive buzz, but to overlook neighborhood stalwarts consistently putting out the hospitality signal is to weaken the mortar that built this city’s dining reputation.
“In a crowded field you divide that pie up,” said John. “It’s tough.”
One taste of Emilitsa’s baklava should soften that calculation. Plus Emilitsa is no graying lady. With a long banquette, flattering lighting, curved bar and cosmopolitan air, she is aging gracefully.
Emilitsa’s new summer menu is unveiled Tuesday, June 23. Dinner is served Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Sat. until 10. 547 Congress St., Portland.