Restaurateurs Maria Kaimakis and Vassos Yiannouris have to be some of the nicest people in town. As you watch them in action, they exude joy and energy.
In February, the married couple opened Cypriana in Tuscany-Canterbury, where you can find them welcoming new diners and warmly greeting faithful customers who have been following the duo for more than two decades.
Kaimakis and Yiannouris developed a devoted fan base serving Mediterranean dishes like pita sandwiches and falafel from their downtown food cart starting in 1991. Over the years, they operated small cafes around town before settling into the food court at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
But it was time for a full-service restaurant, said Kaimakis, who is Cypriana's chef. Her husband serves as a cheerful presence in the front of the house.
The restaurant, in the Broadview Apartments building, has the ubiquitous industrial look of the day with ceiling ductwork, concrete floors and bare tables.
The space — which once housed the now-closed restaurants La Famiglia and Brasserie Tatin — distinguishes itself with red-upholstered chairs, a fireplace and vintage family photos on a wall. Stacks of firewood stored on modular shelving divide the dining room into open sections.
A bonus in the populated neighborhood is free parking in a lot across the street.
Our meal was mostly delicious, but a big drawback was our waiter. He was polite and eager, but he wasn't able to help us with the menu, and the service was uneven.
After we ordered our food, we listened longingly as another server described the various dishes in depth to a neighboring table. We might have chosen our meal differently if he had been our waiter.
But we had many successes. We started with a couple of small plates, including a compelling sesame roasted feta dish. The square of tangy cheese, encrusted with sesame seeds, played off a pool of sweet honey with balancing flavors. The house-made pita bread was a great companion.
Another pita round was dotted with sesame seeds and served with hummus. There are three types of hummus on the menu, but our server wasn't able to explain the differences. All we could get from him was that our choice, "hummus of Constantinople," was made with butter and oil. It tasted like regular hummus to us (a good one), except that the chickpea spread was served warm in a small cast-iron pot. When slathered on the soft flatbread, it was irresistible.
Pita sandwiches weren't on the menu when we dined at Cypriana, but Kaimakis later told me that she would be reintroducing the stuffed bread pockets that she served at the original food cart, only this time making the pita bread in house.
Our keftedes appetizer featured four traditional Cyprus meatballs made with beef and lamb. The dark brown nuggets weren't much to behold, but their personalities perked up when dipped into a swath of yogurt-based tzatziki sauce.
Don't expect elaborate garnishes or plating at Cypriana. The chef allows the food to speak for itself.
The four spinach-and-cheese pies looked lonely on their plate, but one bite of the flaky pastry revealed rich, simple nuances. They were engaging starters for our meal.
We liked that the wine list included Greek wines, though we didn't partake. Other wines are available, too, as well as bottled and draft beers like a Helles Lager by Key Brewing Co. in Dundalk.
There is a bar at the front of the restaurant where you can also enjoy these drinks or a signature cocktail like the Cyprus club, a gin-based drink with citrus, rose petals and egg white.
If you want to have one incredible dish, order the grilled octopus. The charcoal-perfumed meat is succulent and tender. This superb preparation, served with a well-prepared bulgur-wheat pilaf and mint-laced tabouli salad, deserves every positive superlative I can think of.
Kaimakis said she buys only wild-caught octopus and soaks it in water for a long time to get the right texture. The result is masterful.
The assortment of wood-fired flatbreads includes a grilled portobello mushroom melt, which we tried. The cheesy pie was lackluster and would have benefited from more mushrooms.
The biggest blooper was the chicken cooked over coals. The small boneless breast was bland and unimpressive.
But the grilled lamb rib chops were wonderful. The juicy, seared meat was terrific on its own but tasted even better dressed with a scoop of tabouli and dabbed with tzatziki sauce. Crisp fries added to the dish.
The desserts were fine finishes. The kataifi custard, served in a glass, was layered with creamy vanilla-tasting pudding and shredded phyllo dough and topped with chopped pistachios.
The fresh fruit with yogurt featured beautiful melon slices, strawberry halves and purple grapes with a dollop of yogurt drizzled in honey.
When we ordered a baklava Belgian waffle listed on the menu, our waiter shared that the kitchen also had traditional baklava available. We opted for that. The delicate phyllo pastry, bursting with honey-sweetened chopped nuts, was terrific.
Throughout the meal, Yiannouris moved around the room, checking on every table. At one point, Kaimakis was talking to guests, too.
The room pulses with camaraderie and good vibes. With a few tweaks, Cypriana's service and food will match the owners' good intentions.
Rating: 2.5 stars
Where: 105 W. 39th St., Tuscany-Canterbury
Contact: 410-837-7482, cypriana.com
Open: 4 p.m. to midnight Monday through Wednesday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, noon to 11 p.m. Sunday (brunch is served from noon to 4 p.m.)
Prices: Small plates and flatbreads, $9; entrees, $14-$15
Noise/TVs: Three TVs in the bar area
Service: Our server, while pleasant, seemed to be new at the job.
Parking: Parking lot and street parking
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]