Corfu, a Mediterranean cafe specializing in Greek small plates, opened in early June on Cross Street in Federal Hill. The owner is Steve Armenis, a native of Athens, who formerly owned Zeus Cafe in Fells Point.
Armenis named his new restaurant after a Greek island in the Ionian sea, and with walls painted the color of the clear blue sea and its icy cool marble-topped tables and bar, Corfu has the appeal of a cool breeze on a hot summer day.
Corfu opened after an extensive renovation to the space that was formerly Crazy Lil's. The transformation is remarkable and delightful, and, Corfu is, along with Bookmakers and Local Fry, a major addition to this transforming block on the south side of Cross Street Market, which has historically been more homely than the north side.
You are greeted warmly at Corfu, and once seated, you can get started right away, with a selection from Corfu's smart cocktail list, which makes good use of homemade liqueurs and bitters. Try the Gold Digger, a refreshing black-rum based concoction with ginger syrup, vanilla and bitters, garnished with a slice of charred pineapple.
You could also get something from the wine list, which has intriguing options like Moschofilero, Mavrodaphne and Muscat. But the printed list doesn't say enough about them, just the name and the price. If more information was given, at least the growing region, casual diners might take a leap of faith with one of them.
After contemplating drinks, you can jump right into the menu's small selection of dips and spreads, which includes a tzatziki, a smooth and silky hummus and melitzanosalata, a chunky preparation of roasted eggplants and red peppers. Unlike the more familiar baba ghanoush, this eggplant dip has a chunky texture, and Corfu's version is amped up with poached garlic gloves. The dips come with triangles of warm homemade pita bread.
Moving down the menu, you'd best ignore the cheese-and-olive board, where the options — three kinds of Greek cheese, and two olive varieties — are slim and, the portions you're given are frankly a little skimpy.
Instead, order up mezze, or small plates, from sections of vegetables, meats and seafood, while keeping in mind that there is, at the bottom, a small selection of full entrees. We managed to incorporate into our meal both the mezze and entrees and left feeling satisfied but not bloated. That's usually what happens when food is prepared simply from fresh, natural ingredients.
On the whole Corfu did better with hearty dishes than delicate ones. Among the standouts was a small dish of coarse lamb sausage, which was served with crumbled feta cheese in a smoky, tomato sauce. Another was a fragrant entree of pan-seared rockfish, which Corfu served with a fragrant tomato-ginger sauce, crisp green beans and a helping of lemon-crushed mashed potatoes.
A couple of the mezze offerings are actually open-face pita sandwiches, which aren't things that share very well. But they do make for a good in-between alternative to mezze and entrees, something you might choose for a light summer meal all by themselves. The marinated lamb on the gyro was nicely spiced and the pita itself was flavored with sun-dried tomato and paprika.
We liked our vegetable choices. There was a dish of silky spinach sauteed with scallops and garlic, and another of firm green peas in a little pool of butter infused with marash, an earthy chili pepper. If we were lukewarm on the shrimp saganaki, it's because it was served lukewarmly. This traditional dish of shrimp served with creamy orzo works best when it arrives blazing hot in the skillet it's prepared in.
A vegetarian entree, a braised fennel bulb with spinach and cannellini beans, was interesting, but I think I would have enjoyed it more as a side dish. And while we loved the flavor in beef short rib, which was served with English peas and mashed parsnip, the meat was too tough.
For dessert, there are sweet and sticky Greek confections, baklava and galaktobureko, which we were told were made by Armenis' mother, who also upholstered the cushions for the banquettes in the gracefully pretty upstairs dining room. The overall design is the work of his wife, Shannon Armenis, who manages the restaurant.
There are a few shared, marble-topped high tables at the front of Corfu near the retractable floor-to-ceiling windows where you can watch early-evening passersby on Cross Street head to and from the local gyms. Later, they'll be headed to one or another of Federal Hill's more traditional pubs and watering holes. Corfu's short-term challenge will be luring these folks in for a gentle evening of sophisticated grazing.
Dining critic Richard Gorelick is departing from The Sun. A&E will continue to publish reviews, commissioned from freelance contributors, while we search for a permanent replacement.
Nearby reviews: DishBaltimore.com - Federal Hill / South Baltimore