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Day and Night 

Greek/Italian bistro shines

The best part of what I do is the unexpected discovery of a restaurant which delivers, even when there were no expectations. The rarity of this, week after week, year after year, makes that excitement of discovery even more exquisite.

Situated in a small, but new, strip shopping center on Providence Road, south of I-485, is a bright spot on that horizon cluttered with chain eateries. Several months ago chefs Stratos Lambos and Angelo Kaltsounis opened Ilios Noche.

Opening his own restaurant was Lambos' plan from the get-go. His father owned six restaurants in Westchester County, New York.

"The heart of a restaurant lies in the kitchen," said Lambos. "My dad, who was not a chef, always felt his biggest weakness was the kitchen so I decided to be trained as a chef and got a degree from the CIA. From there I went on to get a Bachelor's degree in Florida."

Co-owners Lambos and Kaltsounis met while students at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and have been lifelong friends ever since. After graduation they both honed their skills in notable kitchens in Manhattan: Lambos worked all stations at Charlie Palmer's Aureole while Kaltsounis worked at Estiatorio Milos, a high-end Greek restaurant. After stints in other cities including Ft. Lauderdale and Atlanta, they came to Charlotte for the chance to own their own restaurant.

Also on board in the kitchen is Frank Kaltsounis, the pastry chef. Kaltsounis studied at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and opened SouthPark's Dean & Deluca bakery (when they cooked on site) and was the pastry chef at Kyma, a high-end Greek restaurant in Atlanta.

With this kind of talent, how can they miss?

Ilios Noche is a small restaurant with an open floor plan and clean lines. The open kitchen with a wood-burning oven is set off to the right while a long bar swoops around the front right section. Linen-free tables hover together on the left. From the table you can watch the cooks' magical choreographed dance in front of the line. The take-out area, near the cash register and tantalizing pastry display cases, is usually busy.

Lambos describes his restaurant, "It's a Greek and Italian contemporary bistro. Not a mom and pop type of place. The menu is very appetizer-oriented with half dishes available as well."

The pasta dishes here are offered in small and large sizes. The menu, a mix of these Mediterranean dishes with a heavy Greek influence, primarily uses user-friendly English titles. For example, "Smoked Eggplant" instead of baba ghanous. Entree prices range from $8 for a pepperoni onion pizza to $14 for tuna piccata. You can make the case that their $2 smoked eggplant appetizer is the best deal in town.

The 46 wines on their wine list are divided into four price categories ($18, $28, $38, $44) and are offered by the bottle, glass and half glass. Seventeen kinds of coffee drinks are also offered, as well as a handful of martinis and beer, imported and domestic.

The only downside at Ilios Noche is the too friendly, too chatty, low key service. Service is best when it is unobtrusive and any conversation between server and guest should revolve around the business at hand. We're not looking for Michelin smooth here. Just professional.

With that said, however, the food is so compelling that it obliterates the memories of a chatty server. The wood smokiness on many of the menu items is sensational. Those of us who are normally disciplined to merely taste, found ourselves saying, "Did I eat the whole thing?" to a disgruntled tablemate. The wood-grilled octopus appetizer is embraced by a subtle but audaciously sheer coating of extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar. The house-made sausage is showered in a brash onion pepper stew. Equally good was the veal lasagna while the shrimp carbonara tasted of garden fresh peas, cream, and prosciutto.

The Meli pizza has a judicious pairing of thin slices of tart Granny Smith apples with prosciutto di Parma, topped with bright fresh tasting goat cheese. An extraordinarily flavorful pizza.

The formidable strength of the kitchen extends to the wood-grilled entrees. The best of which is the New Zealand lamb loin, which is enveloped in the perfume of garlic and oregano. The tuna is rendered more forceful and appealing by the caper butter sauce.

The dessert list is long and you should trust Kaltsounis' winning versatility. We did, and we have the out-of-control weight gain to prove it. Haven't had a rolled, not diamond-shaped, baklava? Try one here. Or melt into Kaltsounis' lemon tarts or very chocolaty brownies. You'll hear yourself utter little sighs and murmurs.

Ilios Noche is a Greek/Latin hybrid phrase meaning sun and night, or day and night. And as the lyrics to that famous song go: "Night and day, You are the one, Whether near to me or far, It's no matter, darling, where you are, I think of you, Night and day." And you will.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com

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