Sky Full of Bacon

Taxim: Greek Without the Flaming Cheesiness

The theory is that Taxim, the new Greek restaurant in Wicker Park, is kind of the Greek equivalent of the early new Italian restaurants that helped get Italian food out of the meatball-and-red-sauce rut. That’s what Mike Sula reported in the Reader:

If a single historical figure could be blamed for that orthodoxy—the one that upholds the ideal of Greek food as bechamel-blanketed pastichio and high-viscosity avgolemono soup—it would be European-trained Greek chef Nicholas Tselementes, who in the early part of the last century sparked a culinary revolution in his homeland, exiling simple, fresh ingredient-driven dishes made with olive oil, garlic, and native herbs in favor of a French-influenced hybrid employing butter, cream, and flour. Tselementes wanted to purge Greek cuisine of Turkish and other influences… Since then a kind of collective denial of eastern Mediterranean Greek cuisine has persisted in Greece and abroad, while Frenchified Greek cuisine, aided and abetted by the tourist trade, has been exported all over the world.

I tried this theory on Stevez of LTHForum, and he didn’t quite buy it; his wife is Greek-American and he says the Greektown classics are what all the old ladies make when they’re cooking for themselves, too. It’s not just Greek food for tourists, in other words. But he did buy that it might at least be similar to Greek regional foods unknown in the US, but similar in many ways to Turkish and other neighboring foods (not that you’ll make any friends in Greece saying their food is like Turkish).

Whatever the provenance of its style, Taxim is the first new Greek restaurant in Chicago to get excited about in a long, long time. Chef David Schneider came from places like Green Zebra, not The Parthenon or Santorini, so he’s blessedly free of the Greek orthodoxy that insists on all the flamingly cheesy cliches of the cuisine; he’s broken Greek food back down to first principles, and even something as simple as the baba ghanoush-like melitzanosalata feels reinvented back into the fresh and distinct flavors— charcoal-grilled eggplant, olive oil, garlic, toasted pine nuts— that are usually blended into a gray mush.

We mainly worked our way through the appetizers because, well, that’s pretty much what you should do in almost any restaurant these days, and it paid off.  A “rampopita”— spanakopita made with ramps— was exponentially more flavorful than spinach would have been.  A stew of lamb, fava beans and housemade yogurt was deeply comfy.  Most exotic was a special, urged on us in no uncertain terms by our James Spader-circa-Tuff Turf waiter, of grilled sable liver with grilled zucchini; the funky, slightly fishy liver, the pita crisps and the soft zucchini melded beautifully, lushly magnetic-repellent.

We were fairly full after these four dishes and split our only entree, the duck gyros, which has been (understandably) the most talked-about dish to date.  Duck, prepared basturma style (basturma is basically pastrami; I’m not sure what it means in this context as it’s certainly not nearly so salted or dry as pastrami) is then grilled on a gyros spit and served inside a flatbread with pomegranate sauce and the housemade yogurt (again):

It makes for probably the best wrap you’ll have this year, although I must admit I ate about half of my share by simply picking the roasted duck out of the wrap and gnoshing on it directly; it was delicious enough to not strictly need anything more than that.

The wine list is mostly Greek and following our waiter’s guidance we variously ordered (or were given a glass of) white, rose and red Greek wine; all of it was pretty good, none of it said “minor wine-producing nation.”  To our surprise, the restaurant was empty when we arrived at 6, but by 7:30 or so it was getting pretty full; it is Wicker Park, after all, 8 pm is the early bird special (and as we were leaving even The Violet Hour didn’t have a line yet).

It’s not quite as modest-priced, and it’s more upscale in appearance, but in many ways Taxim seems to me like this year’s Mixteco Grill, the place that catches fire for a fresh and appealing take on a familiar cuisine.  It should be packed soon, go now so you’ll want to go later, when it’s harder to get into.

1558 N. Milwaukee

Here’s Mike Sula’s video of chef David Schneider preparing the flatbread which wraps the duck gyros above:

Making Pontian satz bread at Chicago’s Taxim Restaurant from mike sula on Vimeo.

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