Chicago's only Cypriot restaurant opened about 3 weeks ago in the old Barrel Cafe location on Jackson just off Halsted. It's a fairly large high-ceilinged space with a bar section along one wall, an open kitchen in back, and well-spaced tables on different levels. Some effort clearly went into decoration but the overall atmosphere is informal.
The menu may be confusing at first glance, organized into 6 rows (cold appetizers, salads, etc) and 3 columns (fish meze, meat meze, and mezes tou erota). Appetizers are mostly $5-7 and most main dishes are $7.50-9. One can order separate appetizers, main dishes, and sides or choose one of the set meze combinations for two or more. These combinations include EVERYTHING in the column, 15 dishes for the meat meze, which is an immense amount of food. Meat meze is $30 per person, fish is $35, and the mixed meze is $38.
The wine list of perhaps fifty bottles is heavy on Greek choices but includes a number of Cypriot wines I was totally unfamiliar with. About 10 wines are available by the glass and there are a few interesting Cypriot spirits. We opted for the meat meze and a bottle of Keo Othello ($24), a dry red nonvintage blend from mavro and ophthalmo grapes, nothing to knock your socks off but a good complement to most of the food.
While waiting for the onslaught of food to begin we were served a large loaf of bread (not so great) and a platter of green olives bathed in olive oil with plenty of garlic and coriander seed plus a squeeze of lemon. This was a good start and the olives were replenished after they quickly disappeared.
The first round was talatouri (very thick house made yogurt with mint and a few slices of cucumber; very nice), hoummos (nothing out of the ordinary), and an interesting potato salad in vinaigrette with capers. Portions were not particularly small and this would have made a pleasant light meal.
Then a large salad of chopped lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and onion dressed with oil and vinegar with capers and quite a bit of mild fresh coriander leaf.
Next came the hot appetizers, probably the best part of the meal. Keftedes were small fried pork meatballs nicely seasoned with nutmeg. Afelia was long-cooked pork chunks marinated in red wine and served with a dusting of crushed coriander. This was perhaps a little dry but was one of my favorites. The house made grilled sausage, loukaniko, was similar to its Greek counterpart, salty and intensely seasoned with clove and orange. Grape leaves, coupepia, filled with a lamb and rice mix were served without sauce. Little pita wedges stuffed with halloumi cheese from Cyprus went along well. We were full at this point but the main dishes had yet to arrive.
Kleftiko was a lamb neck wrapped in foil and cooked for 6 hours until it became a completely tender, very rich mass of meat. I think they also offer lamb shank done the same way, which might be even better. Separate plates of chicken and pork souvlaki, served on shredded lettuce, were fine but not terribly special, and were completely superfluous at that point.
Accompanying side dishes were potatoes baked with red wine, nicely browned on the outside but almost creamy within. These came covered with coriander seed (apparently the national spice of Cyprus, or at least a big favorite of the chef). The pourgouri, a slightly sour dish of cracked wheat and thin noodles, was interesting and even more enjoyable the next day.
The meat mezze concludes with dactyla, a finger-shaped baklava variant.
I would certainly return to Venus but wouldn't likely order the meat meze again. Still, it's a good way to experience nearly half the menu all at once and I wouldn't dissuade first timers from trying it (if they're hungry). I'm very curious how the kitchen does with fish. A lot of the seafood choices are similar to those found in every Chicago Greektown restaurant but it wouldn't surprise me if there were some Cypriot twists. Those who dislike coriander may have a difficult time here. I doubt Venus will pull me away from my longtime Greektown standbys but based on this single visit it seems like it will be a worthwhile change of pace.
Venus Mezedopolion (Closed June 4, 2011)
820 W Jackson Blvd