Home-style fare with a sophisticated touch at Eleni’s Philoxenia
Plates appear carrying clams steamed in a piquant ouzo broth, braised lamb shank clinging just barely to the bone, wild prawns sizzling in a garlic-lemon-sherry reduction, boldly colored salads of roasted beets with seasonal fruit, and feathery light baklava layered with pistachios, hazelnuts, almonds, and walnuts. The robust olive oil that seasons nearly every dish is fresh-pressed on Crete. And the wine list features crisp and complex assyrtikos, moscofileros, and xinomavros. This is what you can expect during a meal at Eleni’s Philoxenia (112 NW 9th Ave, 503-227-2158, elenisrestaurant.com), where tremendous care has been taken in sourcing ingredients and the food is prepared with painstaking attention to detail.
“I came here to Oregon in 1974,” says Eleni Touhouliotis, the restaurant’s genial, soft-spoken chef-owner. “I’d been working at a [now defunct] Greek restaurant here called Demetri’s, and one day I thought to myself, once I save up enough money, I’m going to open my own place.”
Touhouliotis kept this promise to herself. In 2000, she opened Eleni’s Estiatorio in Portland’s Sellwood neighborhood, and then a few years later, she learned from a friend that an upscale Mexican restaurant in the Pearl was closing. She stopped by to see it and quickly decided that this narrow, high-ceilinged storefront space on NW 9th Avenue would be perfect for her second restaurant. In 2004, Eleni’s Philoxenia opened to stellar reviews for its creative Cretian-inspired cuisine, sparkling service, and refined yet unpretentious ambiance.
Around the corner from the Park Blocks and steps from several prestigious art galleries, the restaurant continues to draw a steady following, from loyal locals who’ve been stopping by since day one to tourists who stroll over from nearby downtown hotels, all of them lured by the outstanding seasonal specials (keep an eye out for the delicious Mediterranean branzino or the octopus dish Touhouliotis occasionally offers, usually on weekends) and extensive array of salads, cheeses, and spreads.
This isn’t to say that operating Eleni’s has been a cake walk. “It’s not easy to run a restaurant,” she says, noting that about three years ago she decided to close her Sellwood operation. She says that there were few Greek restaurants in the United States when she arrived here and that although the number has increased, cuisine from the ancient Mediterranean nation about the size of Louisiana is still relatively difficult to find in Portland.
Having grown up on Crete, the largest of the Greek Islands, Touhouliotis bases her cuisine somewhat on her picturesque birthplace, which is also the cradle of one of Europe’s earliest civilizations, the Minoans. “It’s a scenic place,” she says, pointing to some of the photographs of Crete mounted above the comfortable booths that line both sides of Eleni’s dining room. She credits her family for having taught her many of the recipes she relies on today—some of them appeared in a cookbook a cousin of hers in Athens wrote some years ago.
On the main menu at Eleni’s, you can choose from among nearly 40 smaller plates. An especially popular way to enjoy a meal here is to order three to five dishes per person and feast on them family-style. Highlights include a salad of sliced cabbage, shaved fennel, and toasted almonds with lemon–smoked paprika dressing, saganaki (kefalograviera cheese pan-fried in olive oil and flambéed with cognac), and the combination platter of classic spreads (puréed garbanzos, tzatziki, whipped feta with chili flakes, and eggplant).
But you definitely shouldn’t overlook the restaurant’s handful of larger entrée-size dishes. Regulars swear by the slightly spicy tou psara, a risotto-style bowl brimming with clams, mussels, prawns, and calamari, and the kouneli stifatho, a hearty casserole of tender braised rabbit and baby onions. “People love that dish, and not many American restaurants serve it,” says Touhouliotis. “I grew up eating rabbits—my father raised them, and this dish, along with lamb and calamari, is very popular in Crete.”
One consistency with all of the food served at Eleni’s is that Touhouliotis prepares only very small quantities of every dish, offering each item until it runs out nightly, and then making everything fresh again the following day. “I don’t like anything to sit around,” she says. The hard-working chef clearly doesn’t like to sit around either. She works in the kitchen and visits with guests in the dining room every night the restaurant is open (Tuesday–Saturday), and her small but passionate staff, many who have been with her since the restaurant opened, share her dedication.
She takes time off only rarely. “I try to go back to Greece every year, maybe for 10 or 20 days, to see my mom,” says Touhouliotis. “I like Greece, but I have been in Oregon for many years. This is my home, and everything is so beautiful here, including the people.” – Andrew Collins | Photos by Stuart Mullenberg