Chef Ken Mikkelson and the folks at Blue Greek on Granite have put a tapa-style spin on the Ashland restaurant's Greek and Mediterranean cuisine.
When Blue opened three years ago, it offered full-course meals featuring such classic dishes as spanakopita, souvlaki and mousaka. When Mikkelson came on board in January, he and owners Gloria and Alexei Menedes began offering individual portions of these dishes.
"It's a little different than the traditional style of preparing them as casseroles," Mikkelson says. "When they're prepared individually, the ingredients and flavors are consistent with each dish. Everyone has the same experience."
5 Granite St.
Open at 5 p.m. daily
Mikkelson was raised in the wine country of Sonoma County, Calif. After a stint in the U.S. armed forces, he enrolled in the culinary program at Santa Rosa Junior College.
"It was just like studying at Le Cordon Bleu, but much less expensive," he says.
Afterward, he interned at Umami, an Asian-fusion restaurant in San Francisco, and at The French Laundry, under Thomas Keller, in the Napa Valley.
I hadn't dined at Blue since it opened in 2010, but I recall one of the most delicious Greek salads I've ever eaten and decided I was overdue for a return trip. A friend and I visited the restaurant last Saturday night. It was the first warm night of the season, but gray skies and a few raindrops coaxed us past the outdoor tables in front and into the dining room.
We started with an appetizer of babaganoush ($9) — a dip made of eggplant and tahini. All of Blue's dips, including tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber, garlic, mint and dill); htipiti (lightly spiced feta); and hummus (ground garbanzos, garlic and tahini) are served with Blue's grilled, herbed pita bread.
My dining partner, who was born in Sussex, England, commented that the babaganoush had "just a bit of garlic."
"That's one we're still working on," Mikkelson says. "Garlic blooms as it sits. Sometimes it will get stronger, or weaker. We're trying to get that one just right."
My English friend also spotted the night's special — a full-course meal of lamb shank braised in red wine and anise liqueur, served with feta mashed potatoes and tender, seasoned carrots and grilled fennel ($21).
She told me that her father, a dealer of antique watches and clocks, had been a big fan of lamb. It was a regular staple at their table while she was growing up. She regarded Blue's version of the shank as no slouch. "It was very good," she said.
Mikkelson told me later that the lamb shank dinner is a house special and available most nights.
I ordered one of my favorites — the mousaka. Mikkelson bakes layers of sauteed eggplant, lean, seasoned, minced beef and potatoes in a creamy bechamel sauce, seasoned with Parmesan and nutmeg ($10). He serves it over fresh spinach and tops it with his blend of fresh herbs — parsley, rosemary, dill, oregano and orange zest. It's a classic, and delicious.
The tapa-style portions of Blue's dishes are well-suited for one person's appetite. Nothing goes to waste.
Other standouts on the menu include lemon chicken and keftedes, or seasoned meatballs. The first includes a thigh or leg portion of meat marinated in white wine, olive oil, lemon, garlic and rosemary and then pan-roasted and topped with gravy. It's served with creamy risotto and a seasonal vegetable. The meatballs are sometimes braised in the same sauce as the lamb, or whatever soup Mikkelson has on hand.
Also look for gigandes (giant lima beans in an herbed tomato sauce sprinkled with feta); saganaki (flash-fried cheese served with pita); falafel (ground garbanzos, parsley and cumin rolled into balls and served with tahini dip); dolmas (herbed rice wrapped in grape leaves and topped with chicken-lemon sauce); calamari (breaded with rice flour, flash-fried and served with tzatziki); and avgolemono — a chicken and lemon soup.
The spanakopita (spinach and feta pie) and souvlaki (season vegetables cooked in olive oil, lemon and Greek spices with beef, chicken or pork are also among my favorites.
For dessert, there's baklava; ice cream topped with an anise aperitif; galaktoboureko (lemon custard baked in buttery, phyllo dough); and chocolate mousse flavored with anise. All $7.
Starting in May, Blue may offer other full-course meals again.
The restaurant is at 5 Granite St. All major credit cards are accepted, but no checks. Call 541-708-5150 for reservations. See www.bluegreekongranite for information.