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July 07, 2008

Zorba's Bar & Grill

Cold Appetizer Plate Dominic Armato

Having just passed the midpoint of our two year sojourn to Baltimore and realizing that I've only sampled a small fraction of the foodstuffs on my list, I've found myself going through the mental checklist over the past couple of weeks. Deli? Check. Pit beef? A pretty good start. Mexican? Oh yeah... got that covered in spades. Even had some spectacular Chinese when that's the one thing I was told simply didn't exist here. But that still leaves a lot. I've got a decent start on crabs, but there's a long way to go and this summer is the last best chance. I've still never tasted scrapple. No trout sandwiches, no snowballs -- this is getting a little criminal. So I've resolved to step it up for the rest of the summer by any means necessary, and this weekend I kicked it off with a long overdue return to the next ethnic enclave over down Eastern Avenue.

Baltimore has a thriving little Greektown, and since a chow outing back around the holidays, I've been dying to get back to Zorba's Bar & Grill. Downstairs it's a local watering hole with a long bar, a few small tables and large window overlooking the kitchen. Upstairs it's considerably more sedate and less divey, but it's still casual and laid back with the same homey menu. If it wasn't already made obvious by the wall of meat slowly rotating in the kitchen window or, you know, the name of the joint, the menu makes it immediately clear that Zorba's specializes in all manner of fire-kissed beasts. But other less smoky classics are also available, and over two visits I managed to sample a few from both categories.

Grilled OctopusDominic Armato
Their cold appetizer plate gives you the opportunity to try a few options, and it's a little hit and miss. On the plus side are the chilled octopus, lightly marinated and pleasantly firm without getting anywhere close to rubbery, and a melitzanosalata that's a little timid with the seasonings, but still brings plenty of eggplant flavor and might even be preferred by those who like their vegetables relatively unadulterated. On the minus side is a largely flavorless feta and a taramosalata that's all salt and lemon with a little fish roe thrown in for the heck of it. Greek salad and fried calamari are exactly what you expect and nothing you'll remember. The grilled octopus appetizer, however, is a show stopper. Drenched in olive oil, lemon and herbs, it's marinated before being grilled, resulting in a black, charred exterior surrounding a moist and tender core. If ever you needed proof that carbon is a legitimate culinary goal, this is it. The few tastes I had on my first trip merely teased me, and I inhaled an entire plate on the second run. Killer dish.

MoussakaDominic Armato
The entrees followed the same pattern. Though the right half of the menu is dominated by grilled meats, my ladylove was feeling the moussaka and gave it a shot. Sadly, the moussaka was weak. It was mostly potato, with a thin layer of eggplant on the bottom, a little bit of ground beef strewn throughout and some tomato sauce painted on top. But more notable was the fact that it was borderline unseasoned. I looked for cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and oregano, and found none of the above. If they were there, they weren't doing much. The result was warm and hearty and utterly boring. Greek-style potatoes and rice voted present, contributing little more than starch to the table. But once again it was all about the grilled items, which were really, really excellent.

KontosouvliDominic Armato
The lamb chops, if a touch overcooked for my tastes, were beautifully seasoned, moist and tender. The kontosouvli suffered no such doneness issues, and it was the second-best dish to the grilled octopus on both occasions. Giant hunks of pork are very heavily seasoned with all of the usual suspects, then spit-roasted to the point of perfect succulence, haphazardly hacked up and unceremoniously dropped into a shallow bowl -- and the presentation couldn't be more appropriate. It hits the table as a big ol' pile of pig, and it eats that way too, lightly crisped and salty where it was kissed by the fire and tender and porky where it was protected within. I also had some mighty fine chicken which managed to avoid the all too common dryness, and they do a special lamb roast on the weekends that I need to get back for at some point.

So I think Zorba's is a hit and miss kind of place, but the hits are consistently awesome and the misses aren't going to make me crave them any less. Even better, gyros is nowhere to be found on the premises. Just know that while there are some tasty items to be found in other parts of the menu, you stray from the grilled meats at your own peril.

Zorba's Bar & Grill
4710 Eastern Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21224
5:00 PM - 2:00 AM


Waste no more time. At least once in each visit to my sister's in Fells Point I order scrapple at Jimmy's. Perfectly done, crispy on the outside, soft and moist on the inside. People here in the Midwest don't even know what the heck scrapple is. It pains me to think you are squandering access to the riches denied to me.

Have you tried Samos? Just wondering how Zorba's compares to Samos?


I'd like to. I know Samos is rather popular. Though I've heard they're more along the lines of Greek-American (not that there's anything wrong with that). Is that your experience?

Hey fellow b-more food blogger- I love your photography! especially the alinea post! I went there last november and am impressed! There was no way I was getting that kind of lighting with my dishes!


Really? We had a spotlight right over our table. Couldn't have been more perfect :-)

Anyway, thanks!

Yes to Jimmy's scrapple. Yes to Samos. And Yes to Samos being very much more Greek-American than most of the other establishments in our Greektown. Even so, it stills makes a wonderfully flavored avgolemono, grilled calamari, dolmades and some delicious souvlaki. Try any of their pies if you can (I prefer the spinach).

Next time you're at the JFX market, you should just get the laketrout there. It's decent to good as far as laketrout goes. As for snowballs? That's a debatable perfection. I do really like the sno-asis chain although the rita's 'italian ice' chain is starting to get to me as well.

I really don't know if it's more Americanized. I've had a souvlaki sandwich from Zorba's and a meal at Mykonos and didn't find the food to be seasoned as well. Americanized or not, the food at Samos is seasoned and cooked wonderfully. Also, to beat the crowds at Samos go early. The place is usually very slow right before noon or at around 5.

I'll have to head to Zorba's and the Acropolis - I'm always on the hunt for some good Pastitsio.

So where do you get good taramosalata? Zorba's is one of only a couple versions that I've had, and I'm willing to admit that there are better ones, but I have no idea where to look.

That said I'm in complete agreement that the grilled meats are the stars there, although I've never had an overcooked lamb chop --- they're sensational. And the octopus is great.

"So where do you get good taramosalata?"

Heh... well, here I have to cop to being the big jerk who criticizes but doesn't have any better suggestions :-)

But I'm confident that's merely due to the fact that I haven't scrounged the 'hood yet. I aim to make that happen, and we'll see how successful I am in this endeavor.

have...have you broken up with us? you have, haven't you? ow, my feelings!

seriously, though, hope all is well, and that you come back soon! :)

I haven't broken up with you guys, Heather! I've just been swamped. And on vacation. Which will make for some fun posts shortly!

(And, incidentally, I'm touched that you missed me :-)

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