Dining out: Pinelopi’s Greek Kitchen Restaurant

Santorini Chicken, a moist breast stuffed with spinach and feta. Photo by Peter Hum, The Ottawa Citizen.

Pinelopi’s Greek Kitchen Restaurant

4100 Strandherd Dr., unit 102 (in Cedarview Plaza), 613-843-1111, pinelopis.ca

Open: Tuesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday to Monday from 4 to 9 p.m.

Prices: Most main courses under $20

Access: no steps to restaurant or washrooms

‘Would you please tell me what is the best Greek restaurant in Ottawa?” read the email.

Usually, I’m able to offer a confidential recommendation or two when queries such as this one land in my inbox. But this time, I was stumped, not having eaten much Greek food in Ottawa in recent years. (Previously, I’ve enjoyed Greek meals on the Danforth in Toronto and in the souvlaki shops and psarotavernas of Montreal.)

I did what many a hungry person has done and consulted Urbanspoon. What did that online restaurant rating service think of Ottawa’s Greek dining options?

After a few keystrokes, I found the Urbanspoon list that designates Pinelopi’s Greek Kitchen in Barr-
haven as Ottawa’s most popular Greek restaurant.

I shared that result of my research with the person who emailed me, but also advised her to take it with a huge grain of salt. Soon after, I paid the first of three visits to Pinelopi’s.

Each time, the eatery, which opened in May 2010 in the Cedarview Plaza strip mall, was visibly popular — packed, in fact. At a weekend dinner and two weekday lunches, almost all of its 50 or so seats were eventually filled.

Bubbling with conversation, the place was attractive and modern, although paintings of village life and fake shutters hang on the taupe walls, evoking Greek rusticity. T-shirted wait staff and owner Penny Palermo conveyed food speedily and with a smile, beginning with complimentary garlic bread.

You could feel the makings of a very popular restaurant in the bustle. In a part of town heavy with chain restaurants and franchises, it’s palpably personable and family-run. The menu’s prices, below $20 for main courses, don’t hurt, either. Nor do the generous and unfussy portions that look to be the rule.

However, the food I’ve eaten has made me ponder the difference between what’s “most popular” and what’s “best.”

During my first two visits, the food was pretty run of the mill, falling short of my Urbanspoon-induced expectations.

And then, on my most recent visit, everything fell into place and Pinelopi’s was one of those places that I could recommend, with some qualifications.

I first visited to Pinelopi’s for a Saturday-night dinner this summer. There was, unfortunately, not a dish that made me enthusiastic.

A bowl of calamari ($11) was not bad, but I liked the distinctly fishy fried smelts ($9) markedly less.

Chicken Santorini ($17), a boneless breast stuffed with spinach and feta, dusted with flour and then baked, was moist but lacking in bright, clear flavours and finesse. Smothered in an orange, roasted-red-pepper sauce, the dish seemed surprisingly thrown-together in its plating.

Lamb souvlaki ($19) was tender but a little short on flavour and underseasoned. It needed its side order of tzatziki — or those grains of salt that I mentioned to my email correspondent.

Moussaka ($16) with a side order of salad was filling, but nothing special, reported the person who ordered it.

These dishes came with so-so, unremarkable rice and/or salad. However, I’ll take unremarkable over the square of feta atop the Greek salad that came with my lamb souvlaki. The cheese simply tasted off.

At my next visit, a Friday lunch’s combo ($11) consisted of some very ordinary cream of asparagus soup and better, if sharply salty, spanokopita. At the same lunch, a slice of roast leg of lamb ($11) was tender but without much flavour. The brown jus was a needed boost.

Happily, this Tuesday’s lunch raised my estimation of Pinelopi’s. Again, I ordered the calamari, but this time it was bang-on, shatteringly crisp, almost grease-free and tasty.

A plate of four dolmades ($9.25), was faultless. The meat-and-rice-stuffed grape leaves boasted a fine, savoury filling and were topped with a creamy, clearly lemony sauce.

Two small chicken souvlakis ($12.25) were moist and meaty and tasted of the grill. While the rice was standard fare, the bowl of salad was fresh and bright-tasting.

From Pinelopi’s selection of made-in-house desserts (we skipped the made-elsewhere, less-than-Greek choices), I picked the baklava ($6.25) and was impressed. Especially if your reference point is store-bought, plastic-encased baklava, Pinelopi’s massive, syrup-coated, fresh-tasting, cinnamoned, nutty, phyllo pastry should please you.

For an authentic finish, a sweet and sludgy Greek coffee ($3) did the trick.

Considering my three visits, it’s hard to know if the kitchen, perhaps stressed by a full dining room, has been inconsistent and had some off-nights, or if the menu, which is large, has strong and weak points.

After my meal this week, I met the person who cooked our food and after she rang up my bill, I told her sincerely that we had really enjoyed lunch. I wish I could have said the same thing after my other two visits.

I get why people would root for Pinelopi’s, and I’d stop by again for the best dishes that I’ve had there. But to return to my correspondent’s initial query, I am still seeking an answer.

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