819 Coleman Blvd. Mt. Pleasant
Entrée Prices: Moderate ($12-$23)
Serving: Dinner (Mon.–Sat.)
Like a fresh breeze off the Aegean Sea, the arrival of Samos Taverna in Mt. Pleasant gives diners east of the Cooper something to be excited about. The upscale Greek cuisine is very good, and the service is accomodating and welcoming. Samos pulls off an appealing mood and atmosphere that makes you want to eat, share, and come back for more.
The heart of Samos' menu is the mezethes. These are little plates meant to be shared among the table that complement the wine, ouzo, or whatever you're drinking. They are brought out, not all at once, but individually as they're ready, a style that encourages sharing and sampling. Their purpose is as much to stimulate conversation and sociability as it is to satisfy the appetite, and Samos's selection succeeds on both fronts.
The list of two dozen mezethes starts with spreads like htipiti (feta and roasted chili), melitzanosalata (eggplant with walnut, garlic, and cilantro), and the classic tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber, garlic, and dill), which can be had either solo ($5) or in a selection of three ($8). The elies ($4) are a bowl of olives marinated with red chili and pepperoncini that is spicy enough to make you sweat.
A few of Samos' mezethes are familiar standbys at Greek restaurants, like meatballs, spanakopita, and dolmades, but for the more adventurous eater there's a refreshingly novel selection of things you likely haven't tried before. The octopodi skaras ($8) are not for the faint of heart — three whole octopus tentacles that are grilled and dressed with olive oil and lemon. They're salty and perhaps a little over-charred from the grill, but the texture is nice and chewy, and the olive oil and lemon make for a tasty broth for dipping the warm, thick bread that's provided for the table. Petros' psarakia tiganita ($8) are tiny sardine-like fish that are lightly battered and fried a delicious golden brown, and they come on a big square white plate with two small mounds of skordalia, a potato-garlic puree, for dipping.
When in doubt at Samos, it's usually better to order the things you're not sure how to pronounce. The souvlaki ($8 as a meze or $16 for an entrée) is easy enough to say, and there's nothing technically wrong with the skewers of grilled pork and chicken and the accompanying tzatziki sauce, but all in all the meat is only mildly spiced and it's just a little boring. The garides saganaki ($8 meze, $17 entrée) is another story — a big iron skillet sizzling with shrimp, tomatoes, and feta that's a definite winner. The dish has the right balance of delicate shrimp with a sweet tomato punch and big explosions of creamy, melted feta — another selection that has you grabbing for bread at the end so you can soak up and enjoy every last bit of the sauce on the skillet.
All these dishes are meant to be enjoyed with ouzu or wine, and there's a healthy selection of both, all at a reasonable price, and a few Greek beers, as well. To finish things off, the crispy baklava with its side of cinnamon-laced whipped cream and strawberries can't be beat.
Samos is the latest venture of Andy Fallen, who in previous years helped launch an impressive lineup of restaurants that includes 39 Rue de Jean, Coast, Peninsula Grill, and Mercato. The Greek connection comes from Fallen's business partner, a local doctor whose family has roots on the Greek island of Samos in the North Aegean Sea. The restaurant occupies the building on Coleman Boulevard as well as the big hole in the Mt. Pleasant dining scene that was left gaping when J. Bistro closed its doors back in February. Samos has been open for just over a month, but already it's made a splash. Even on a Tuesday night the restaurant was hopping and the tables were full.
Fallen knocked himself out with the décor, which can only be described as stylish and sophisticated. From the round disc-like lighting fixtures in the dining room to the big bar backed with a checkerboard display of muted candles, everything's sharp and well-finished. The inside dining area is small, with big brown leather banquette seating along the walls and small tables pushed closely together. It's a tight layout, but even with the tables full it successfully walks that fine line between intimate and cramped. You're part of a buzzing, energetic crowd, which only adds to the convivial feel. Two outside patios are perfect for enjoying a mild October evening, and the outdoor fireplace and ouzo bar should keep things pleasant even as the weather turns cooler.
The menu invites guests to "celebrate the food, drink, and zest for life of the Greek islands." And what better place to do so? The atmosphere is upscale and the menu ambitious, but everything is reasonably priced. The mezethes run from $4-$8, the entrées from $12-$24, and there are a lot of values on the wine list too, which means you can have a nice long evening with friends and still leave with some cassh in your pocket. Thay in itself is reason enough for a big Greek celebration.