At seaside tavernas in the Greek islands, it's not uncommon to pick out exactly what you'd like prepared for dinner from a display of whole raw fish.
You can have the same experience at the Greek Islands restaurant in Highlandtown - at least on weekends. Michael Katsaros and his sons, George and Emanuel, have fish from Greece and the Mediterranean region flown in from a New York distributor every Friday. Since we visited midweek, we didn't have the option of choosing from the raw-fish display. That didn't stop us from having a wonderful fish dinner at Greek Islands, which has been open about six months.
We tried the flounder stuffed with crab imperial, a staple in seafood restaurants from Dundalk to Annapolis. Usually, it tastes like something from the freezer wrapped around a tired lump of paprika-dusted crab mush. Here, a whole baby flounder was filleted and stuffed with delicate crab imperial. The fish was pearly white, fresh and moist. The filling was terrific - full of crab but not overpoweringly rich.
Our waitress tried to persuade us to try the crab cakes, and after tasting the crab imperial, we wished we had followed her advice. Crab cakes are a specialty of Michael Katsaros, who was the original chef at the crab-cake mecca, G & M in Linthicum.
Instead, we ordered mainly Greek specialties, starting with appetizers of creamy taramasalata, a fish roe dip that was not as salty or fishy as usual, and orange-flavored Greek sausages that arrived overcooked in a pool of oil.
Slices of roast leg of lamb were a bit overdone, although they were served with savory pan juices that almost made up for it. If you prefer lamb medium-rare, you may want to order the baby lamb chops instead. Dinners are served with one or two vegetables, such as fresh green beans cooked in tomato sauce, orzo or parboiled, oven-roasted potatoes.
Athenian shrimp is a dish served over rice that turns up on a lot of Greek menus. They're given a good turn here, made with plump, tender shrimp, feta cheese and a chunky tomato and onion sauce.
Of the traditional dishes we tried, our top pick was the pastitsio, a sort of Greek lasagna made with ziti, bechamel and ground meat. It wasn't overpoweringly rich, and the tomato sauce had lovely flavor, with the barest amount of cinnamon.
If we just stuck to the classics, though, we wouldn't have discovered the feta dip, made with jalapenos, garlic, lemon and olive oil. It was fabulously pungent, a wonderful assault on the palate. Try it as a spicy alternative to the creamy cucumber and garlic dip, tzatziki.
Clams island-style were another good starter, bathed in a savory tomato broth that tasted like it had a hint of saffron and thyme. Our only complaint was that the clams were too big and a bit chewy.
For dessert, order one of the two home-style puddings made in-house: a not-too-sweet rice pudding made with milk, or a square of moist bread pudding with cinnamon and raisins.
There may be prettier Greek restaurants in Highlandtown, but Greek Islands' owners have worked hard to give this former diner the look of an outdoor cafe. The small dining room is separated from the bar area with plastic lattice entwined with fake ivy, and the brick wall is made to look like the outside of a cafe, not the inside, with shutters and barrel tiles. Still, it may take the )R weekend display of raw fish to lend an authentic Greek islands air to the Greek Islands restaurant.
4617 Eastern Ave.
Hours: Open daily for dinner; Tuesday through Sunday for lunch
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $2.75-$10.75; entrees, $7.75-$18.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 12/10/98