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Yasou Greek Bistro gives an authentic flavor even outside Greektown

In Greek, "Yasou" means "health to you." It's used as a greeting and a toast, like "Cheers!"

At Yasou Greek Bistro, there's plenty of reason to toast. With simple, nicely cooked takes on Greek specialties and friendly service, the busy Hunt Valley restaurant is a good choice for diners in search of top-notch Greek food without the drive to Greektown.

Yasou occupies a small space in a shopping center on York Road, where Cockeysville meets Hunt Valley. Inside, clean white paint and shiny tables give the year-old restaurant a brand-new feeling. But the decor — brightly colored Mediterranean murals and blue and white accents — is in the same vein as Baltimore's oldest Greek restaurants.

Just before 7 on a recent Friday night, Yasou was jam-packed. We lucked into the last small table available, bypassing a larger group waiting for one of the restaurant's big booths.

Moments after we sat, a personable waitress arrived to take drink orders and open our bottle of wine. Yasou is BYOB ($2 corkage fee per diner drinking alcohol) with no plans to acquire a liquor license.

Though Yasou's menu includes pasta dishes, subs and pizzas, we took our cue from the tables around us, sticking with Greek specialties. We started with small Greek salads, which came with our entrees.

Crispy iceberg lettuce, thin slices of red onion, tomato and cucumber were sprinkled with fine bits of salty feta and dressed with simple vinaigrette. The salads weren't surprising, but they were a crunchy and bright start to the meal.

An appetizer of saganaki ($8.50), fried Kasseri cheese swimming in lemony olive oil, felt like the healthy salads' polar opposite.

Back in the kitchen, the cheese was fried in a pan, doused with brandy and flambeed, leaving a little of the liquor's sweetness. Smeared on triangles of pita, the appetizer was messy but tasty.

Also from the appetizer menu, an order of keftedes ($8.50) — meatballs — was the biggest hit of the meal.

Made with ground sirloin from Monkton's Roseda Farms, mixed with herbs and spices and pan-fried, the dish was fragrant and savory. The meat was just cooked through, with a thin crust on the outside but surprisingly soft in the center.

Also on the plate, a dish of thick, tangy tzatziki was a bright sauce for the warm meat. And when the meat was gone, we couldn't resist polishing off the yogurt dip with more pita triangles.

Entrees also came with a generous helping of pita bread and tzatziki.

Shrimp souvlaki ($16.95), eight large shrimp grilled on skewers and served over rice, was straightforward but satisfying. A garlicky marinade worked nicely with the sweet flavor of the shrimp. Though the rice was a tad overcooked, the shrimp itself was tender and just cooked through.

Even better was a baby rack of lamb chops ($24.95). Six small chops, marinated for hours in herbs and spices and grilled, were smoky and flavorful.

When our waitress didn't ask about cooking temperature for the lamb, we had some concerns. We shouldn't have worried. Though they were cooked through — more done than we usually eat lamb — the small chops were impressively tender.

Cooking over charcoal was another plus in their favor. The unmistakable smoke of charcoal grilling gave the chops an extra layer of flavor.

On the side, an order of fluffy fries was good, especially dipped in tzatziki, though they seemed unexciting next to the lamb.

After checking with the kitchen, our waitress rattled off several dessert options. We opted for the house-made galaktoboureko ($4.75) a mouthful of a name describing a Greek custard pie.

The dense square of custard, wrapped in crispy layers of phyllo, was sweet and sticky, thanks to a honey and lemon glaze. By the time we started on dessert, we were nearly stuffed — dinner included a lot of pita bread. But the pie's combination of sweet and tart flavors, crisp pastry, and creamy custard had us hooked. We ate every bite.

Yasou felt busy from the moment we arrived, though never hectic, thanks to our waitress. She was a model of efficiency – checking in regularly and delivering food and drinks speedily — but even with a crowd gathered, she didn't rush anyone.

By the time we finished dessert, the restaurant had calmed down a bit; a few tables sat empty. Still, the kitchen — visible from our seats — stayed busy with the remaining customers and a steady stream of carry-out orders.

Yasou isn't a relaxing place to linger over a long dinner. But it is a friendly spot for Greek food, cooked traditionally and well.

And we'll drink to that. Yasou!

Yasou Greek Bistro

Back story: Opened in January 2012 by the Makris family — the former owners of Milano's, a small local chain of casual Greek and Italian restaurants — Yasou Greek Bistro serves simple, well-executed Greek fare in a busy, friendly suburban setting.

Parking: Lot in front

Signature dish: Don't miss the keftedes, a meatball appetizer. Made with well-seasoned Roseda Farms ground sirloin and pan- fried in olive oil, the meatballs are a fragrant and savory start to the meal.

Where: 11121 York Road, Suite C, Hunt Valley

Contact: 410-527-0208; http://www.yasougreekbistro.com

Open: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Not accepted

Rating: ***

[Key: Superlative: *****; Excellent: ****; Very Good: ***; Good: **; Promising: *]

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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