Tuesday, May 10, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: DIMITRI'S IN SCARBOROUGH MAINE

Review of an enjoyable restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


A lovely spring evening with crystal sunlight saturating everything under a blue, blue sky, and an almost Mediterranean mood takes hold, especially following the weeks of rain we've had. What better way to indulge this fantasy mood than a Greek dinner?

The approach to Dimitri's is not promising, located as it is in of one of those little strip plazas off a dead-end street in Scarborough. The parking-lot entrance is shared with a small take-out pizzeria so your first inside view is an order-counter, a drink-dispensing machine, a few tables and those ugly molded benches beloved by fast-food outlets.

But the restaurant has a separate door inside, and when you enter, there is a pleasant, light feeling to the place. More than that, there is the smell of a wood-burning oven and the lingering aromas of roasted meats and garlic. My Mediterranean mood is instantly revived.

Dimitri's immediately serves warm bread. This is bread with body - beefy, moist and crusty outside, baked each day in the restaurant. On the table is a dark bottle of seasoned olive oil, with saturated sprigs of rosemary and garlic cloves visible. Also on the table is a shaker of cracked sea salt, a very nice touch. Now, if you discover anything more delicious than fresh, crusty bread sopped in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, I'd be pleased to hear from you. What a fine start to a meal.

In keeping with the Mediterranean fantasy, we ordered a bottle of Retsina ($16.00), that crisp, refreshing traditional white wine of Greece that is flavored with an extract from pine trees. The wine list is not large, but there is something for most tastes including the essential Greek red and white, a sprinkling of Italy, France, and California, and even some sparkling wine and Champagne.

The bread, the wine, and the aroma of the oven put us in a fine mood to linger over the menu. Dimitri's has a nice, modest-sized menu. The items are Greek or cooked in Greek style.

The selection of appetizers is not large. I only mention this because appetizers in Greek cooking are among the great specialties. There are scores of them, and you can easily make a meal of appetizers. Choice is limited to five on Dimitri's menu, but when we received ours, I thought it might be Dimitri's philosophy to make a single-appetizer meal possible. The caramelized goat cheese with prosciutto, candied onions, and greens ($6.00) and the grilled Greek sausage (loukaniko) with olives ($4.00) were large servings, adequate for a light meal.

These each were a bit disappointing. The caramelized goat cheese was exquisite, but the "prosciutto" proved to be ordinary ham slices roasted a bit. The loukaniko was good, but not exceptional. The olives were the ordinary Greek variety rather than the wonderful Kalamata with their uniquely bitter, salty firmness. The quantity of sausage was more than any non-Olympian, expecting to eat a full meal, could consume.

It proved much the same with our soups. The servings are large bowls of substantial soups. We adhered to the practice of not going to a Greek restaurant without trying the Avgolemono, chicken rice soup whose broth is thickened with egg and flavored with lemon ($4.00). We also tried "today's soup" which was promisingly named Mediterranean vegetable ($4.00).

Dimitri's Avgolemono is full of good ingredients, but it lacks the traditional, extremely rich taste with egg meringue being substituted for yolks, and it is short on the bite of lemon. The "Mediterranean vegetable" turned out to be a fairly pedestrian lentil soup - chicken broth, carrots, bits of onion and celery with lots of green lentils. Both soups are solid, basic food but with no finish or special character.

While we waited for our entrees, we continued to enjoy our wine and observed the dining room more closely. It is a large rectangle with a series of picture windows filling most of two sides. The sense of sunlight-washed Greece is suggested although the view through one side is the plaza parking lot. The other view is a wood patio, fenced in from surroundings, with little white Italian lights against the trellis that tops the fence, providing a nice effect as evening descends.

As the sunlight dimmed, the room's indirect lighting through small white shell-fixtures near the ceiling, was more noticeable. This works nicely, but the effect is somewhat spoiled by a utilitarian white suspended ceiling. The walls are all finished in a trompe l'oeil warm pink marble, a bit sparse with a few prints hung here and there and a few inexpensive knock-off white Greek vases. The floor is hard tile as are the table tops. The cooks work at the brick oven behind a large counter area opposite the patio windows.

Service at Dimitri's is very informal, adding to the impression of a familyish restaurant despite some sophisticated touches in food and décor. I sensed a bit of aesthetic confusion in the particular mix. Service also was slow and lacking in the responsiveness that gives polish, but it was friendly.

The entrees proved remarkable, both for presentation and quality. Stifatho ($13.00) is beef or lamb chunks braised in red wine with onions and other flavorings. Dimitri's plate comes with a flaky puffed pastry, filled with savory-soaked pearls of orzo (rice-shaped pasta), covered with the fragrant, deeply colored stew, sprinkled with crumbled feta cheese, with a variety of other vegetables, including roast zucchini slices, scattered around. It tasted every bit as good as it looked.

Lamb shanks Mytilini ($17.00) again provided a beautiful plate. A generous cut of lamb, stained rich and dark with wine sauce, containing plump garlic cloves, on a bed of rice, with a variety of nice vegetables, including the zucchini and even a piece of roasted parsnip. The lamb was tender and succulent, with a nice crusting and the sweet, liquidy taste of garlic - simply excellent.

When our waitress asked about dessert, you might think only a hero capable of further indulgence. Well, readers, this is the kind of sacrifice your reviewer gladly undertakes in the interest of complete information: We ordered baklava ($5.00), Galaktobouriko ($5.00), and Greek coffee ($1.50 ). The pastries were both of high quality and nicely presented in plates drizzled with patterns of honey - a Greek version of the now popular nouvelle cuisine dessert presentation - and sprinkled with powdered sugar. The baklava - phyllo dough saturated with honey, walnuts, and other flavorings - suffered from too many cloves for my taste. The Galaktobouriko - phyllo crust saturated with custard and lemon and honey - was excellent.

There is no better way to end a meal than with Greek coffee. And Dimitri's pays due respect to this beautiful Greek custom with the demitasse served on a plate covered with a crisp, folded linen napkin, the entire effect being reminiscent of the extra fuss put into various oriental and Middle Eastern tea or coffee services. And the thick, rich brew is no letdown from its presentation. Our entire bill came to $69.28.


ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS (V, MC, AE, D)

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS

FOOD: 3 STARS

AMBIANCE/DÉCOR: 2 1/2 STARS

SERVICE: 2 1/2 STARS

LOCATION: VIP DRIVE (DEAD END) AT ROUTE 1, SCARBOROUGH (MINI-PLAZA, SOUTH SIDE OF VIP DRIVE)

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