In the dining room wall at gro greek. evolved is a map of the original long-distance run of a battlefield messenger from an ancient field in Marathon, Greece, to the city of Athens. Gro isn't a sports bar; however, it is owned by a group of marathon runners. Partners Jimmy Clonaris, Vaki Karampourniotis, Bill Kortesis and Nick Tzefos developed the concept for gro during the Kiawah Island Golf Resort annual marathon. They realized a common truth in the U.S.: Healthy Greek food is hard to find. After all, the American Greek culinary landscape has become strewn with cones of pressed meat, fried potatoes and preservative-laden salad dressings.
In this age of local, rusticated and healthy foods, nothing is as inspiring as a group of local entrepreneurs who share a love of their ancestral cuisine and want to bring it back to its elemental and healthy roots. Long before an American — yes, an American — invented the frozen cone of pressed mystery meat most Americans think of as the Greek gyro, the Greeks had grilled skewered pork, lamb and chicken for several thousands of years. Before the Americanized version, a Greek salad was simply dressed with a squeeze of lemon and some extra virgin Greek olive oil. And long before FAGE started importing its Greek yogurt into the U.S. in 1998, Greek chefs and home cooks made their protein-rich yogurt daily.
Like any health-minded Americans, the owners at gro are sticklers for ingredients. Whenever possible, produce is bought at local markets and what can be made in-house, is.
Karampourniotis brought in his friend, world-renowned baker, James Beard award-winning author and Johnson & Wales University chef Peter Reinhart, to perfect the gro pita recipe of unbleached flour, GMO-free yeast, olive oil, water and honey that's baked fresh each morning.
"That," my dining companion finally said, looking up from his gyro, "is a bad-ass pita."
The gyro offers so many elemental pleasures in a single bite: charcoal-grilled sliced pork, crisp romaine, summery tomatoes and a decadent dollop of house-made tzatziki. Gyros are also offered with seasoned chicken breast, flank steak, 85-percent-lean ground beef patty or meat-free. All meats are cooked on a charcoal grill. Karampourniotis had toyed with the idea of vertical grilling, but opted for charcoal, noting that animal fat running down a skewer is both visually unappealing and not healthy.
The menu at gro is small, but focused. The gyro in a bowl has the same permutations as the sandwich. Greek salads stippled with the usual suspects of feta, Kalamata olives and tomatoes have the same protein choices as the gyro, with quinoa added. A thoughtful, three-item kids menu includes mini-gyros.
The first items we sampled on the initial visit were the inexpensive sides. These cost less than two bucks and include baked, not fried, seasoned grotatoes, grilled veggies and Greek hummus (I prefer Lebanese hummus, but the Greek flavor profile is definitely distinct).
The classic house-made Greek yogurt shines in their fast snacks and smoothies, easy pickup treats after a workout at the neighboring Siskey YMCA. "The Runner" is topped with blueberries, banana slices, granola, chia seeds and honey.
The post-modern interior crispness of gro is a close replica of a café I frequented one summer in Thessaloniki. Orders are taken from a pad at the entrance and food is called out by customer name from the counter. This polished and fast casual eatery offers all sorts of pleasingly authentic Greek touches. Bottles of red, white and a sweet dessert wine from Karampourniotis' uncle's vineyard in Greece are available, for example.
That the food is good comes as no surprise. Karampourniotis owns another restaurant, the 29-year-old North Star Seafood Restaurant in Dallas, North Carolina, and two other owners have family connections to restaurants: Tzefos' family-owned San Remo Restaurant in Charlotte, and Kortesis' family owns the King Kitchen Family Restaurant in Winston-Salem. That the food at gro is seriously satisfying while also being healthy is the surprise, and a most welcome one.