Two words: Pork ribs.
Not because they’re the best thing on the menu at ilios noche at Quail Corners – though they might be – but because they illustrate what the place does best: Vibrant Mediterranean dishes well beyond what that moniker usually connotes around town.
These ribs are dubbed “Greek style,” and sport a delectable crust and fine texture, with toasted coriander and bright lemon, along with tzatziki sauce (“cucumber yogurt,” the menu explains helpfully), a kalamata-olive-studded slaw and a generous drizzle of Spanish-cultivar olive oil. For all your friends who can only summon gyros to mind when thinking of Greek food, buy this immediately.
Striped bass is grilled whole here, then filleted and served with fresh greens and a lemon-caper sauce that’s simple and excellent. Grilled octopus comes in thin slices, with marinated red onions for contrast and a vinaigrette that sets off its lushness nicely. A braised lamb shank (think Greek osso buco) comes with orzo with tomatoes and shallots, while lamb pie and the Greek classic moussaka also figure prominently among entrees, the latter described as using “lamb Bolognese,” which is smart, since moussaka is like lasagna Bolognese, except made with eggplant and potatoes. Sort of.
A thick veal chop had terrific flavor, if a little too much fat, with its wild mushroom accompaniment oversalted. (I’ll opt for lamb chops with lemon and Greek herb marinade next time.)
Italy is most apparent in pizza and pastas, though even there, a Greek influence lifts dishes such as the Piemonte pizza. That offers chewy, delicious bits of Greek pork sausage along with pepperoni, prosciutto and Gorgonzola (yes!) strewn on a fairly thin rectangle of dough, nicely seasoned and crisp.
Pastas range from free-form lasagna made with pappardelle (wide noodles) to torchietti (here more like twisted penne rigate than “little torches”) with grilled chicken and tomato cream sauce, or with chicken and marsala-spiked mushrooms. Pasta comes in two sizes, a wonderful habit echoed in the app list, which offers several smaller-size versions of entrees, from scallops to lamb chops. Effective.
(Spain shows up specifically in just a few spots, like a paella reduction with sea scallops, a romesco sauce, and the Marcona almonds served with olives and cheeses, but influentially all over, from that Arbequina olive oil to red peppers used strategically.)
Don’t miss the crisp zucchini and eggplant chips served with tzatziki, but pass on the baked goat cheese, unless you’re actually wanting lots of marinara and just a bit of cheese (this starter does come with fine focaccia and plenty of it, though).
Salads are sizeable and varied, from Greek to grapes and fennel with spinach, and you can add a wide range of proteins for $4.50 to $10. A lamb burger with barrel-aged feta (yes, that’s significant) joins a sandwich lineup with lamb and chicken souvlaki: skewered meats served with pita.
And revel in the array of side dishes: a dozen of them, many marked as gluten-free and/or “approved” by Revita Medical, which is a Charlotte practice specializing in age management. Olive-cabbage slaw is one of these, as are Greek-style braised greens, and among the gluten-free are Tuscan braised giant white beans with tomato and herb vinaigrette. But the most surprising and beautifully done side is “chickpea fries”: essentially stiff hummus cut into rectangular prisms, fried but greaseless, and served with a romesco sauce made with pickled Fresno chiles (so a sort of roasted red pepper puree) and herb salad.
Wines show range, with more expensive “special selections” offered by the half- and glass as well as bottle, a nice idea (though the stemware is such that I heard diners mistaking their “glass” for a “half”). A handful of market and signature cocktails are available, too.
The interior’s simple and stylish, relying on walls of reclaimed wood and a play on Greek architecture with the columns in the curvy bar area. Huge framed mirrors and oversized clear glass pendants bounce light around what could have been a dark space, and frosted glass sets off a private dining space.
The result is warm, and so are servers: Ours spoke clearly about preparations and enthusiastically about popular dishes. The kitchen slows down on occasion, but we had no inordinate waits.
The first ilios noche, out Providence Road, opened more than a decade ago, with Stratos Lambos and Angelo Kaltsounis, plus Angelo’s brother, Frank, putting together a venture born of education (Culinary Institute of America is where the first two met, and Frank went to the French Culinary Institute), heritage (they come from restaurant families, and the Kaltsounises’ dad had the Landmark here) and experience elsewhere, including Aureole in New York and Kyma in Atlanta.
Now called Xenia Hospitality Group, the business includes Nolen Kitchen, Big View and Maverick Rock Taco.
But ilios noche (the name means day and night) has always seemed to me closest to their core and, perhaps because of that, the best executed of their concepts. This one hits that mark, with zest.