When my punctual friend was late for lunch, I called to ask where she was. I am on Powhatan, she said, but the only restaurant I see is the Dixie Pig.
It is not hard to understand why the glowing neon pig confused her. But the historic sign is a remnant of days past. Beneath it, Vasiliki Volioti (Vaso) has established a fine little Greek tavern, an eatery now known to those who look beneath the pig as Vasos Kitchen.
Vasos is a neighborhood taverna, named after the Greek native whose servers often recall diners names and inquire after their families. The glass tops sport cloth napkins and cover tablecloths; diners may choose to eat indoors or at one of the sidewalk tables.
I have grown fond of Vasos, where lemon, garlic and white wine are featured in many of my favorite dishes.
The [seasonal] gazpacho, textured, garlicky and chilled, is one of the most pleasant and satisfying in the area, and the artichoke appetizer, a whole artichoke baked in garlic and olive oil, is consistently delicious.
Another delicate and delightful seasonal dish is the soft-shelled crab in a silky lemon-butter wine sauce.
The fried calamari is crunchy and moist, and seasoned, apparently, only with salt and pepper. As an appetizer it is a new comfort food. To us, the larger entre serving seems less satisfying and creates a sort of mouth fatigue.
It seems that my companions and I could never tire of the aptly-named Zesty Feta Spread with Pita Bread. On a second visit, we ordered a double serving of the feta cheese/tomato blend with the perfect jolt of red peppers. The wheat and white pita triangles are warm and fresh and the combination heavenly.
The house salad is pleasant, vinegary and authentically Greek, but the anchovies appear only on the appetizer sampler (which also features Vasos light and minty corned beef meatballs).
At lunch, finding a table usually is easy and the noise level is acceptable, but on one recent Friday night, our party was pleasantly greeted by several servers and one other employee who told us she would be with us in a minute. It was busy and waiting a few minutes to be seated was understandable, but the latter employees demeanor suggested that she would have been more pleased to see the personification of the bubonic plague.
Our server was as pleasant as her Macedonian accent, but the noise level forced us to ask her to repeat the specials several times. Finally, she had to practically blow in my ear for me to hear what she was saying. The busyness might also account for her asking my drink order and then dashing off to fill it without asking my companions.
Vasos specialties are listed on the back of the menu, and servers explain which are available. For the most part, they seem more costly than the regular menu and prices do not accompany them, so diners must ask how much they cost or risk being unpleasantly surprised when the reckoning comes.
The Athenian Chicken special, for example, is chicken roasted with olive oil, lemon, white wine, rosemary and garlic and accompanied with down-home (if you live in Athens) roast potatoes for $17.95, a couple of dollars more than all but two items on the regular menu, the filet mignon kabob at $18.95 (lunch)/$22.95, and the large Greek-style pizza at $16.95. When we tried it, the veg of the day was green beans, which were cooked to crunchy perfection but cool.
There are a few other bumps. We found the shrimp marinara almost too bitter to eat, and on one occasion, I ordered a lamb shank that was too tough to puncture with a fork.
I sent it back. In its place came Vaso, arms akimbo. Whats wrong with my cooking? she asked. She listened to my objections and returned to the kitchen only to reappear a few minutes later to apologize. It shouldnt be like that, she said, graciously removing it from the bill.
For dessert, Vaso offers a lovely tiramisu, reminiscent of my favorite in Liguria, northern Italy, and other traditional sweets such as baklava, yalatboureko and cannoli. (And when Greeks say sweets, they aint just whistling Thermopylae). They also offer a particularly refreshing and delicious frappe, iced Greek coffee that will whip your Red Bull faster than you can shout Ole!
Pizzas are made to order and more like the hand-made pizzas of Italy or Greece, other than having a larger American-sized share of toppings. Although I am not such a fan of Italian pizza (I know, the blasphemy of it) Vasos finds a happy balance between the two styles that even younger diners find exceptionally tasty, despite the bloated Pizza Hut or Dominos versions they substituted for mothers milk.
Vasos Kitchen, under the sign of the Dixie Pig, has the odd false note, but if it were within walking distance, I would happily spend the day, sipping retsina and sampling Vasos fare while watching the world — or at least North Old Town — go by.