Appetizers are disarmingly good at Samos, a small Greek restaurant in Highlandtown named for an island in the northeast Aegean.
There's garlic shrimp with sharp fried cheese on seasoned rice. Orange-spiked sausage tossed with feta, tomatoes, green peppers and red onions. Creamy taramasalata, the Greek fish roe spread, on golden pita triangles. Fried calamari, crackle-crisp on the outside and tender inside.
If you face away from the lighted sub sign and the colorful potato chip display rack, or if you just close your eyes and taste, you will think you are in a much fancier restaurant. Not that we minded the blue and white plastic tablecloths, the ice water served in plastic foam cups or the metal folding chairs. For appetizers this good, we would have been happy to sit on the floor.
Nicholas Georgalas opened Samos in 1977. He serves a full menu of Greek specialties, plus subs and sandwiches, pizza and Maryland favorites, like crab cakes.
We mostly ordered from the Greek side of the menu, dishes that were served with sizable Greek salads. Our favorite entree was a big square of moussaka that dwarfed the small plate on which it was served. All the flavors were distinct, yet all blended perfectly -- eggplant, potatoes, custardy bechamel and tomato sauce with ground beef and a whisper of cinnamon.
Disappointing us were overcooked baby lamb chops, with long, greasy logs of oven-roasted potatoes, and chicken that had been baked so long its texture seemed chalky.
The combination platter was fine, with moist, lemon-scented dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice), fresh-tasting spinach pie, a skewer of well-seasoned pork souvlaki, and long, thin slices of lamb and beef gyro meat. If you order this platter, save some of your Greek salad to make mini gyro sandwiches; no salad or sauce is served on the plate.
The only dessert that Samos makes in-house is the galatoboureko, a pastry roll filled with light custard. Luckily, you don't have to pronounce it correctly to appreciate its charms.
We also sampled a creamy cheesecake swirled with raspberries; a nutty and crisp baklava; and a chocolate layer cake that was exceedingly light.
Don't expect all of the rules of restaurant etiquette to be adhered to at Samos. For instances, cream will be added to your coffee before it gets to the table, and an entree may arrive with the salad course, as it did during our meal. This is casual dining to be sure.
On the other hand, prices are low and service, to judge by our waitress, is friendly and fast. Most important, the food will transport you to the Greek isles, especially if you start with their terrific appetizers.
Address: 600 S. Oldham St.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: None accepted
Prices: Appetizers, $2-$6; entrees, $4-$13
Service: ** 1/2
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****
Fair or uneven **
Pub Date: 5/07/98