It used to be that a Greek restaurant was where you went when you were young and penniless and wanted a lot of semi-exotic food for not much money. The food could be good, but one thing it wasn't was upscale. Now that's changed.
Not the food part. Mostly it's still not upscale. But who would have thought we'd be eating taverna food in a restaurant as elegantly decked out as the new Karabelas?
The change has its roots in the success of Taverna Athena, a now-defunct restaurant in the Inner Harbor. It served basically the same dishes as the storefront places in Greektown did, but it had a little more atmosphere and, of course, a great view of the water. People seemed willing to spend more money to be in nicer surroundings.
Four years ago, the owners left Harborplace, moved to Fells Point and opened Opa! (Their exclamation point, not mine.) This is the restaurant that really started Greektown West: It offered the same traditional Greek food, but it was served in a dining room with more style than you might expect.
In the summer of 1997, the Black Olive opened on South Bond Street in Fells Point. Its food was and is the most haute Greek cuisine in Baltimore.
Then last spring the lavishly renovated Kali's Court opened a few blocks away on Thames, to almost instant success. (Kali's is more seafood and less Greek than the others.)
So there you have it. A short history of Baltimore's new upscale, seafood-oriented Greektown. The latest entry is Karabelas, a bit north of the others on Broadway, in a block that's in the process of being gentrified.
You can tell the owner, George Karabelas, has spent serious money renovating the building. The dining room, dominated by an ornate bar, is handsomely decorated in soothing neutral tones. A fascinating row of niches in the walls contains what almost seem like found objects: A small marble bust paired with a Greek vase. A framed photograph placed, not hung.
But the food that comes out of Karabelas' kitchen is still the simple fare you might get if you were eating at an outdoor cafe overlooking the Aegean -- food like a Greek village salad, whole char-grilled fish, braised lamb. And in spite of the fancy surroundings, prices aren't out of line for what you get.
My advice is to come to Karabelas for the seafood. You definitely don't come for the bread, which is improved by being grilled, buttered and sprinkled with chopped parsley but is still basically white fluff.
And you don't come for the vegetables. The absolutely traditional green beans are stewed to death with tomatoes and, in this case, a few cooked carrots thrown in for good measure. Roast potatoes are somewhat more appealing, drizzled with olive oil and quite lemony. Another time, perhaps, they would be roasted to crisp-edged brownness.
But the seafood is another story. The delicate white flesh of a whole sea bass, head on and grilled with olive oil and herbs, is almost perfect. It stays remarkably moist and fresh-tasting. A grilled tuna steak, meaty in texture, is also successful (although if you like it medium rare, be sure you specify).
Lamb chops are fine in their rosemary-scented, garlic-infused cooking juices, but they don't have quite the impact of the fish.
Another good way to experience Karabelas is to get a bottle of wine and enough appetizers for the table to make a light meal. The appetizer menu is set up to be the Greek equivalent of tapas, offering everything from broiled quail to lima beans baked with fresh tomatoes.
With that in mind, Karabelas' spinach and cheese pies are cocktail-size, made for sharing. The crisp phyllo with its savory fillings is almost grease-free. Among the cold appetizers, miniature dolmades -- grape leaves stuffed with rice -- in a tangy yogurt sauce are endearing. Only the shrimp Korfu, baked with feta and tomatoes, let us down, and only because the shrimp weren't flaming as promised.
Desserts are homemade and classically Greek. Baklava, fresh and honey-sweet, is delicious if you can avoid the whole cloves. Galaktobureko is a homey, custardy version that's marginally lighter. But the star of the desserts is the not-so-Greek creme caramel. Its silky sweetness is very pleasing after a substantial meal.
Where: 318 S. Broadway
Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, Sunday only for lunch
Prices: Appetizers, $4.25-$9.50; main courses, $13.95-$22.95
Rating system: Outstanding: ***; Good ***; Fair or uneven; **; Poor *