The Kohilas family has been operating Ikaros at the same Greektown address since 1969. That's a very long run for any restaurant, especially a family-owned and -operated establishment. Ikaros is truly beloved by its patrons, who loudly sing the praises of its consistency, its generously plated homemade food and, especially, its hospitality.
This is the place we're thinking of when we're talking about ourselves as the citizens of a friendly and gracious city. This is where you should send visitors for the best of Baltimore charm. The waitresses here will do everything but cut your food into little pieces for you, and I'm sure they'd do that, too, if you asked them. The Kohilas family wants nothing more than for its patrons to enjoy themselves. They succeed entirely.
It's not hard to picture the Ikaros interior in your head — think white tablecloths, arched openings and stuccoed walls hung with colorful paintings. These are small, well-maintained dining rooms, cheerfully cozy and reassuring.
Because Ikaros is neither chef-focused nor openly obsessed about its ingredients, the familiar rooms and the familiar-looking multipage menu can be deceptive. You could be misled, too, by the charmingly illustrated but very old-fashioned printed wine list, which includes quotes from News American reviews. (Forget the wine and order a glass of ouzo, which you can dilute throughout your meal.) You could be deceived into assuming that the offerings at Ikaros are mass-produced, cooked by routine, intended for the lazy palates of nostalgic diners.
Anything but. This is excellent food for people who appreciate smart and careful cooking. There was, when we visited, a fried codfish special, the Bakaliaros Tyganitos, that sets the bar early and high for my favorite restaurant dish of 2011. Here's what the menu says — one of the few times it makes a substantial claim about a particular ingredient: "Dry cod from the North Seas, totally unsalted, perfectly fried. Served with Skordalia (a traditional Greek garlic spread) and boiled Endives."
The diner's trick is to make sure every bite of that bone-white, mellow cod, crusted with a flaky and minimally seasoned batter, is coated with the dark and lustrous garlic spread and chased with a forkful of silky endive. Yes, the endive is boiled, not steamed. Boiling is just the thing for some vegetables, and endive responds beautifully to a salted bath.
We also ordered the Skordalia as a stand-alone appetizer, along with the taramasalata, the traditional spread made from fish roe and varying amounts of starch and cream. The version at Ikaros is much milder and starchier than the versions I've tried at neighboring restaurants, which extend the roe with cream cheese or sour cream. Both the garlic and the fish spread have been scalloped attractively before arriving at the table, where a basketful of crusty bread is waiting to slather them on.
A salad of fresh octopus is a lighter, refreshing companion to the spreads. Cooked very simply with onions, wine and herbs, the octopus is cut into small and tender pieces. Just delicious. Appetizer-size cheese pies, golden phyllo triangles stuffed with creamed feta cheese, were on the specials list, and so we ordered them, too. They're perfect here, light and piping hot. Did we order saganaki, too? Yes, we did, and we were glad we did. This is the best version of the flaming herbed-cheese dish I've had in Baltimore. Our waitress had a good time serving it to us, too.
The entree listings are divided between seafood specialties, lamb dishes and offerings from the broiler. The Hellenic Surf and Turf is a good introduction to the restaurant's versatility with the basics. It includes two succulent and meaty baby lamb chops, a portion of the restaurant's terrific fried squid and a small version of its often-neglected crab cake, as good as many I've seen in seafood restaurants.
Diners choose their sides. I liked the buttery saute of string beans and carrots, and I just about flipped over the oven-baked potatoes. It might really have been the firm, minimally seasoned and sunny potatoes that convinced me more than anything that we were in good hands at Ikaros. They were fit for the gods.
No pasticcio and moussaka on this visit, but we did order a special of Greek meatballs, served with spaghetti, which we enjoyed for its light touch and fresh taste. We ended up not ordering, though, at least a handful of dishes that are longtime favorites of some Ikaros-loving friends of mine. They'll be cross with me, I know, for not ordering fresh fish, which Ikaros prepares with olive oil and lemon. On the menu when we visited were rockfish, porgy, red snapper, black-stripe sea bass, bronzini and flounder, the last served whole. I don't plan to wait very long before my next visit.
Desserts here are homemade, and the offerings are brief — the classics katifi, baklava and galaktoboureko. A piece of each came home with me, enough honey-soaked pastry to last the week, but when next rosy-fingered dawn appeared, they were gone.
Where: 4805 Eastern Ave.
Contact: 410-633-3750, http://www.ikarosrestaurant.com
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner every day except Tuesday
Prices: Appetizers, $5.25-$9.50 Entrees, $14.50-$22.95
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭ ; Good:✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven:✭✭; Poor: ✭]