A CONCERTO IN GREEK MAJOR
By Peter Wren
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN SUBAR
By Peter Wren
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN SUBAR
It’s one of the more baffling restaurant mysteries of the last half century. Why, in the name of Herodotus, do so many Greek restaurants continue to trot out, decade after decade, the same tired old offerings that were popular when Aristotle Onassis was courting Jackie Kennedy?
Who’s to blame for this icy stasis, for local restaurateurs’ stubborn refusal to try anything new? Did some yia yia, back in the ‘70s, slip all of us the mati—not just the evil eye, but a 50-year evil glare—and we’re still paying the price for it? Or Is Billy Sianis and his blasted goat to blame for this, too?
The good news? I’m beginning to think chef Athinagoras Kostakos, who runs the shiny new Violi Taverna in Oak Brook, might be working hard to shatter our local curse once and for all. There’s so much to praise about Violi—simply put, we need more restaurants that drape beds of bougainvillea from the ceilings and build bar spaces that glitter like jewel boxes in the moonlight—that it’s hard to know where to begin.
But when it comes to kudos, here’s as good a place as any to start: Violi is no copycat. No one’s cooking from Xeroxed old recipes in the kitchen. They’re trying new things and playing with creative ideas. It offers opinions galore—and a distinctive point of view—on where the Greek table has been and what direction it should head in the future.
In short, it’s a chef-driven Greek restaurant, which can be difficult to find these days. Love it or not, you’re going to be served dishes that inspired by Kostakos’ own palate as well as the island of Mykonos, where he’s overseen a number of restaurants.
So prepared not simply for Greek cooking, but food from Mykonos, the so-called island of the Winds, where the sun shines 300 days a year and restaurateurs are forced to compete for attention with an island so gorgeous you could nickname it Elysium.
As a result, Kostakos’ cooking extends an olive branch from the old to the new, from tradition to modernity, all while reminding us that Greek cooking doesn’t have to be monolithic. It can draw from every subregion of the Peloponnese. Thus, we get Cypriot-style sausage, often called sheftalia, ladled with an avgolemono cream, which mirrors the way a French bistro steak might serve steak with a bearnaise sauce.
Violi’s Grecian tuna tartare is studded with Fresno chilies and crunchy bits of kataifi, a crunchy straw-like shredded dough. One of our favorite dishes, a crispy-skinned roasted halibut, doesn’t just get moisturized with lemon juice. It’s set on a silky pillow of skordalia, the Greek-potato puree usually served as a dip, in a clever Grecian homage to Southern fish and grits.
The creation of Violi, which is named after the Greek street violinists, has a wonderful backstory. Lucas Stoioff and David Rekhson, who are principles of the DineAmic restaurant group, visited the island years ago and fell so madly in love with the place and Kostakos’ cooking that they did everything in their power to convince him to launch his first American restaurant empire with them.
While preparing to open that first venture, Lyra, which opened in Fulton Market in Chicago in 2022, were still in process, Stoioff and Rekhson decided to do something they’d never done before: The signed a lease to open Violi before Lyra ever opened.
There are roughly a half dozen dishes that the two restaurants share, including the house’s iconoclastic take on gyros (fork-tender lamb shoulder that diners pick apart, dress with various sauces and pack into fresh baked pita). But the difference between the two restaurants, Stoioff insists, comes down to nomenclature: Lyra is more of an estiatorio (more of a formal restaurant), whereas Violi is meant to be a taverna, which means the menu is slightly more rustic with most plates designed to be shared.
It’s telling that much of Violi’s staff, both front and back of the house, were imported from Greece, thus you’re going to receive some marvelous side dishes of history with your meals. The house’s Greek-style risotto, for instance, is a dish often served at weddings, which blends Greeks’ love of lemons with their appreciation for soft textures. The flavors are decadent—a kind of Greek style cacio e pepe made with rice—but the offering itself is a creamy as a savory breakfast bowl of semolina pudding.
The only carb offering that’s richer—and dare it be said, more impressive—is Violi’s take on pastitsio (read: Greek lasagna). The tableside preparation is wonderfully theatrical: Meat is shorn from a flintstone-sized short rib and tossed in a bechamel-inspired sauce spiked with truffle and graviera cheese. Suffice, to say, there’s no ragu quite like it in Oak Brook—all the cream, cheese and meat juices mashing together to create a cheesy paste that’s pure umami wonderment.
Suffice to say, there was not a single dish that felt phoned in, including the beef souvlakia (read: shish kebob), which was cooked a perfect medium rare and served with a thick yogurt-based tzatziki sauce. And last but not least, the triple-cooked octopus—boiled, sous vide, then grilled—may be the tenderest piece of seafood we’ve had in years: crispy skinned on the outside, soft as mashed potatoes on the inside, all paired with two earthy accompaniments: charred sweet cippolini onion and pungent kalamata relish.
Don’t go home without trying Violi’s bougatsa, which begins as two UFO-sized saucers of phyllo dough, before servers mash them together, tableside, into a mountain of melting cinnamon ice cream and Greek custard. It’ll make you feel like you’re nine years old again, devouring a sophisticated sweet treat that’s as delicious as the traditional Greek pie that inspired it. It will be a lingering reminder, like so many dishes here, that sometimes smashing expectations can be infinitely more exciting than simply honoring them.
Violi is located at 260 Oakbrook Center in Oak Brook, 630.592.2104, tavernavioli.com
The bar at Violi has quickly become a go-to spot for creative cocktails that walk a tight rope between being sweet, spritzy and downright earthy.
The Karpouzi: Who says watermelon should be saved for the summertime? This surprisingly gentle blend of Hendrick’s, St. Germain and watermelon puree was built for sipping at a spa. But it’s the hint of cucumber and touch of oregano that makes it unlike any other gin drink around.
Mykonian Mezz: Citrusy and herbaceous are the keywords here—with some smoke on the back end. It’s made with mezcal, yellow chartreuse and pineapple with an undercurrent of lime. Kudos to a sprinkling of warm cardamom at the close.