Issue November 11, 2009

One gyros, two gyros, many gyros

A.J.’s Gyro Café gets it right

Let’s get one thing clear: The Greek word “gyros” is a singular noun. Like other similar Greek words that occasionally appear in English — kudos, logos, ethos — you don’t delete the final “s” if you’re having only one. A “gyro” is a kind of helicopter.

The menu at a new Greek-style eatery in Southern Indiana provides us a clear, simple overview: “Gyros is singular.”

Now, here’s the funny bit: This instruction comes from a place that bears the name, “A.J.’s Gyro Café.” Go figure.

However they spell it, however you say it (the plural is actually “gyree,” if you want to be pedantic, though I’ve never heard anyone actually do this), the Greek fare at A.J.’s is pretty good.

A.J.’s is owned by Alison and Joe Hanover, who have operated A.J.’s Coffee & Cream, a roadside dispensary of gyros, cheeseburgers, ice cream and espresso drinks in Georgetown, Ind., a few miles west. The seasonal Georgetown spot is closed for the winter. The Gyro Café is open daily year-round for lunch and dinner.

The dining room, which once briefly held a modern reincarnation of the Ranch House, still boasts a half-dozen ’60s-style chrome-and-black diner stools along a dining counter. The ’50s musical memorabilia is gone now, and the walls have been repainted that beautiful Greek blue, somewhere between Greek Islands sky and sea, with contrasting bright yellowish-green.

Large framed color photos of Greek travel scenes cover the walls; the mirror behind the counter bears unframed travel posters and a couple of big poster ads for Kronos Gyros, the Chicago firm that presumably supplies the gyros meats and equipment.

Black booths surround the perimeter of the room, with large tables covered with retro oilcloth in pink-and-blue abstract floral patterns. Black tables and chairs fill the middle of the room.

The menu is fairly extensive and not all Greek. (Alison is British, while Joe is a native of nearby Georgetown; they met on the Greek island Crete, where Alison ran a restaurant with her brother Joe, a Navy Seabee. Got that?) The menu includes plenty of Greek-style fare but adds English fish and chips, American burgers, salads, sandwiches and more.

But when your name is gyros — er, gyro — Greek gyros pretty much has to be your signature dish. A.J.’s offers four, including a traditional Greek model made with your choice of lamb-and-beef or beef cut from the rotating “cone” on the vertical gyros grill, or chicken ($6); a bacon and hummus model, which sounds quite appealing and, if you dare, may be combined with the traditional gyros ($6); and, for the vegetarians in the crowd, a feta-cheese-and-black-olive gyros or a falafel gyros ($5 each).

We filled up by sharing plates: a dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) appetizer ($3.50), a regular lamb/beef gyros ($6), a falafel plate ($4.95) and an order of baklava for dessert ($1.75).

The server brought our dolmades out on a small plate, slapped them down, announced “Dolmats,” turned and left. No additional plate was offered for sharing, so we reached out to share, leaving drippy trails of olive oil back to our places. The dolmades were tasty, though, tightly formed balls of rice robustly flavored with lemon and a lot of olive oil, wrapped in tender edible grape leaves. Four dolmades came on a small plate with a wedge of lemon and a dollop of tzatziki sauce so rich it was hard to tell whether it was thick Greek yogurt or sour cream, flavored with a dash of dried herbs.

The falafel dish was actually a deconstructed falafel gyros arranged on a plate. Four golden-brown falafels perched at the center, surrounded by chopped tomatoes and red onions, hummus and tzatziki sauce and toasted pita points. The falafels were surprisingly reminiscent of hush puppies, perhaps because the onion flavor (and maybe an exotic hint of cumin) was so deliciously dominating. The crunchy, dark-golden-brown crust wasn’t bad either.

The gyros came tightly wrapped in a Kronos-logo paper envelope, Chicago-style. The menu advises leaving it in the bag and pulling the paper down as if you were eating a banana. Since we were sharing, we went the knife and fork route instead. It was very neatly made, fresh romaine lining the pita, and the grilled lamb/beef mix, essentially a dense, spicy meatloaf, was neatly cut into thin, even slices. Tomatoes and red onions were carefully prepared as neat small dice, too, suggesting an experienced hand in the kitchen.

Baklava, described as “honey and walnut strudel,” is on the menu with ice cream for $3.75, but you can get a pair of baklava triangles au naturel for $1.75, and we were glad we did. We were given two spoons but, again, only one plate, requiring us to reach out to grab our share. Service was friendly and courteous, but they just don’t seem to think about the user-friendly details.

Perfect baklava is a work of tension held in balance: It is both heavy and light — rich, sweet, chopped walnuts and spices dripping with honey, wrapped in dozens of leaves of phyllo pastry, each leaf delicate and light; soft, sticky and chewy overall. This one wasn’t bad.

With tall glasses of iced tea and diet cola, the tab for two came to $21.08, and we rounded up the tip to $25.

A.J.’s Gyro Café
768 Highlander Point Drive
Floyds Knobs, Ind.
(812) 923-4976
www.ajsgyros.com
Robin Garr’s rating: 82 points

 

Our big fat Greek gyros

Devotees of the Greek food in Louisville will recall the repeated efforts of Maria Bell and her family to find a formula that sticks. From Radcliff, Ky., to Butchertown, Clifton, back to Radcliff and now in Crescent Hill, Bell begins her fifth Greek-restaurant venture in the region, if I’m counting right.

This opened a couple of months ago in the tiny store that The Wine Rack left vacant when it moved to larger quarters two blocks west. A lot of work was needed to convert a wine shop into an eatery, and during the early days we spotted workers behind a curtain hurriedly installing the necessary three-division sinks and kitchen equipment. Formally, It’s All Greek to Me opened as a takeout eatery with Greek dishes sold in tubs from a cooler box, with gyros and cooked dishes randomly available under a provisional Metro Health permit.

A few weeks later, the long awaited “A” inspection result appeared in a front window, and a full menu was introduced. It’s still primarily takeout, although two or three tables permit dining in. We tried the baked lamb and potatoes ($11.99, available on weekends) and found it an excellent dish, long-cooked and tender with scents of lemon and herbs. Dolmades ($5.95) boasted good flavor, but a thick tomato sauce didn’t enhance them.

The standard gyros ($5.95 for lamb, sausage or chicken) is one of the most generously proportioned around, piled high with meat. Preparation is rough-and-ready — lettuce, thick onion slices and chunks of tomato appear to have been tossed in haphazardly, an oversize blob of tzatziki ran out the edges, and the pita was flabby — but all that flavorful thin-sliced lamb made up for a lot.

A takeout order of gyros, dolmades and the best baklava we’ve enjoyed outside New York City’s Greek-immigrant neighborhood, Astoria, came to a very moderate $16.32.

It’s All Greek to Me
2716 Frankfort Ave.
895-0555
www.mariasgreekkitchen.com
Robin Garr’s rating: 80 points