You could eat your way around the world in downtown Ballard—within less than a mile radius, there's everything from Puerto Rican (La Isla) to Minnesotan (Zayda Buddy's), Vietnamese (the Monkey Bridge) to Norwegian (Olsen's Scandinavian Foods). Ballard even has a little cafe that specializes in toast (Nervous Nellie's).
But for years, Ballard's culinary offerings have had one glaring omission: Mediterranean food. Until about a month ago, if you wanted a gyro or spanakopita within walking distance, the best you could do was head way up 15th Avenue Northwest to Taki's Mad Greek (a zany little Mediterranean cafe with live music and huge helpings, worth the trek for the messy falafel sandwich alone).
But Ballard has finally gotten its Greek on: Plaka Estiatorio opened up about a month ago in a small shop across from the High Life on 20th Avenue Northwest. It's a cozy, cute room, despite faux exposed brick (sigh). Like most Ballard restaurants at dinnertime, it's bustling with older couples, young families, and the occasional sinågle diner. Plaka's menu is concise but accommodating: With over 15 small plates (most between $5 and $7), an array of dips, a few salads, and about a dozen entrées, there's a taste of just about everything you could ever ask for.
Our meal started with a large plate of soft, warm pita and three dips ($8). The skordalia (crushed garlic and potatoes) was the first to get gobbled up—the pungent taste of garlic infused the creamy potatoes neither overwhelmingly nor too gently, just the way it should be. The melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant, tomatoes, and onions) was an appropriate, mild complement, with the caramelized onions' natural sugars sweetening each bite. The roasted-red-peppers-and-feta dip was runnier than I'd have liked, spreading out across the plate like something predigested, but despite the unpleasant aesthetic, it was still a classic, tasty combination.
Across the table, on the meat-eaters' side, the gyro meritha ($6)—a combination of lamb and veal with roasted tomatoes and tzatziki—shimmered in a shallow pool of oil. According to my carnivorous taste-testers, it was greasy, but in a glorious way. "It's like lamb bacon," laughed one, while the other silently ravaged the plate. It smelled rich and caramely and smoky, and as they pinched pieces of glistening meat between wedges of warm pita, I considered—just for a heartbeat—abandoning 15-plus years of vegetarianism to taste it. Fortunately (or alas?), three tender medallions of spanakopita ($7) kept my attention.
The only thing on the table that failed to impress was the horiatiki salad: a big bowl of tomatoes, English cucumbers, green peppers, red onions, capers, and feta in a lemon vinaigrette. There wasn't enough acid in the dressing, so the veggies were drowning in oil and begging for seasoning. A sprinkling of sea salt and fresh black pepper helped, but it could've benefited mightily from another squeeze of lemon juice.
While I nibbled at the lackluster salad, all I could think of was the dressing I'd had just the night before at Gorgeous George's in Greenwood. Ah, Greenwood. While it's exciting that Ballard finally has a horse in the race (and a delicious one at that), Greenwood definitely had a head start: There's Mediterranean cuisine on every block. And the clear winner is Gorgeous George's.
Chef George is a tall man with a huge smile who walks around the tiny dining room greeting new customers and talking to regulars. While we waited for our hummus-with-meat and falafel appetizers ($7.95 and $6.95), he brought us a plate of pita with a cloud of hummus (which was fighting to contain a flood of extra-virgin olive oil) and an enormous salad. (He brought pita, hummus, and salad to every table, on the house. I don't know if he does this all the time, but: awesome.) Poured across the giant bowl of crisp romaine, tomatoes, and cucumbers was the dressing of my dreams—the sweetest, tastiest basil vinaigrette I've ever had. The hummus was smooth and flawless, and the pita was soft yet not at all gummy, with the thinnest layer of crispy crust. But that dressing was all I could think about.
George's falafel was light, with a thin, browned outside that crunched easily, giving way to a tender center. And the chunks of lamb, while not as beautiful as Plaka's, still looked inviting—marinated then pan-roasted to a deep brown.
While Greenwood may be ahead, Ballard is finally representing—and hopefully the success of Plaka Estiatorio will inspire another Mediterranean spot (or two!) to move into the neighborhood. Maybe George is looking to expand?