On the short list of restaurants that Denver’s dining scene could use, another Greek place is not an item that springs to mind. But spend any time at Axios, a smart new room in the Berkeley neighborhood, and you will find yourself thinking: Yes, absolutely. Another Greek place.
Axios bills itself as an estiatorio, a Greek word that generally translates as “upmarket restaurant,” something a shade more ambitious than a taverna. Axios sits in the space once occupied by Brasserie Felix.
The restaurant is dimly lit, spiffily decorated with a glazed-tile floor and upholstered walls that serve as booth backs for an array of two- and four-topped tables. Anchoring the room is a large bar. Along with cocktails, it features an array of wines and beers, including a range of Greek varieties.
Recent visits found Axios doing a good business at both the lunch and dinner hours. Customers were a mix of recently converted regulars — Axios just opened at the start of autumn — and newbies who had heard the buzz. It’s family- friendly: Witness the 4-year-old kid getting his first taste of feta cheese and olives and deciding he liked them both.
Forget the Pop-Tarts, Mommy — pass me the pita.
Like so many Mediterranean cuisines, Greek fare features small plates, both hot and cold.
Axios offers saganaki ($10), the classic starter of tart kasseri cheese flamed tableside and doused with lemon. (More on this later.)
Kalamari ($11) arrives heaped in a large bowl, tender unbattered rings tossed with tomatoes, capers, garlic and some torn spinach, then finished in a white wine and sherry sauce. This might sound like a busy presentation, but it is in fact a purist’s delight. The squid’s flavor is front and center.
Dolmades ($8) are tightly bundled grape leaves stuffed with rice, garlic, minced onion and pine nuts. In Axios’ version, the standard lemon sauce is spiked with fresh basil.
No one is likely to complain about skimpy portions at Axios. They are large: just the thing if you plan to drag a giant wooden horse up to the gates of a walled city.
Pastitsio ($15), Greece’s homey take on macaroni-and-cheese, comes in a square the size of a box of holiday greeting cards. The noodles sit atop a base of ground lamb and are bound with a creamy bechamel sauce.
Brizole ($18) is the ticket for trenchermen feeling the need to go whole hog. This is another simple dish: bone-in pork tenderloin finished with pan drippings. It is paired with a salad of sautéed Swiss chard studded with garbanzo beans. It’s an artful presentation, with one side of the plate bearing a slick of hummus, which on this evening was a bit salty.
Not every entree is driven by proteins fresh off the hoof.
Pepieres yemistes ($15) features big-shouldered, fire-roasted peppers stuffed with tabouli and pine nuts. Finished in an oven and served with a lemon tahini sauce and feta, it’s a superb vegetarian option, even for non-vegetarians.
Lunches deliver sharp variations on salads and sandwiches.
The Greek salad comes in $4 and $8 portions, your basic mix of romaine, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and olives, loaded with feta cheese. You can upgrade it with sundry proteins, including chicken, shrimp and carved gyro meat.
At $9, a Greek grinder proved one of the better sandwich finds in recent months: meatballs smothered in a tomato-lamb sauce and topped with melted provolone. It’s heaven in a hoagie roll, with field greens tossed in to assuage your guilt.
Now to service. It’s a mixed bag; friendly but with lapses in expertise.
Example. When saganaki arrives at the table in a Greek restaurant, the drill is supposed to go thusly: The waiter lights the brandied cheese, lets it burn, then douses it with a squeezed lemon.
On the evening we ordered it, the waiter lit the dish, looked at me and asked, “I assume you know what to do with the lemon?” I picked up the lemon and showered the flaming plate with juice in my best Herculean death grip. The sucker still raged like the towers of Troy the morning after the Trojans dragged the gift horse inside.
The waiter suggested I blow on it. I thought about answering with a line from the late, great Richard Pryor’s Mudbone routine, but squelched the urge. Eventually, the fire, too, was doused.
All in all, one of the weirder waiter exchanges I’ve been through in some time.
But we’ll end on a sweet note. An almond olive-oil cake was a small, densely crumbed cake topped with a compote of mandarin orange and grapefruit slices, paired with a dab of whipped cream.
It was a lovely way to end the evening, especially on a night when we stepped out into swirling snow.
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