Dinner Date: Avli Estiatorio
We love the North Shore. We love the parks, the beaches, the schools, the neighbors, the manicured lawns.
But let’s face it. Restaurants on the North Shore can be, well, a little boring. Bland food. Aloof waiters. Monochromatic patrons.
So, more often than not, when it’s date night, we head down Sheridan Road and into the city—to the latest foodie hot spot on Randolph Street, or a storefront bistro in Andersonville, or a bustling joint on Taylor Street where everybody knows everybody.
Thankfully, we’ve found a restaurant tucked into the old Laundry Mall in Winnetka that brings the best of city dining up to the suburbs. It’s called Avli Estiatorio.
That mouthful of a name means “the courtyard restaurant” in Greek. On a recent summer night, we paid a visit to Avli’s beautiful, ivy-covered courtyard and settled in for a lively, wonderful meal.
We were greeted by owner Louie Alexakis, who seems to greet everybody as if they were long-lost cousins. Alexakis is the former manager of the venerable Greek Islands restaurant in Chicago’s Greektown. Now a Winnetka resident, he opened Avli with the goal of introducing authentic Greek food to the North Shore in a warm and welcoming environment that feels like you’re visiting someone’s home.
The crowd at Avli was eclectic that night, at least by North Shore standards: a gaggle of Greek women celebrating a birthday, with nary a word of English to be heard; a solo diner in a purple dress and purple glasses, enjoying the latest Suzanne Collins novel over a glass of wine; two blond kids with their blond parents and their gray-haired (formerly blond) grandparents; a girls’ night out—or was it a book club that didn’t bother reading the book?
We started with the Avli flatbread—a square mini-pizza that highlights all the flavors of Greece in a single bite: carmelized onions, Kalamata olives, fresh tomatoes, myzithra cheese, feta cheese, and fresh basil. We followed with the lentil salad, featuring baby lentils imported from Greece with roasted red peppers, feta, and olive oil over baby spinach. Perfect for a warm summer night.
Next, we tried the grilled octopus, by far the best rendition of this dish we’ve ever had. Simply prepared with lemon, oregano, olive oil, and onions, the tender octopus was charred to perfection.
For our entrées, we shared bites of three dishes: the savory papoutsakia, a “little shoe” of an eggplant stuffed with sautéed onions and herbs and served with a garlic tomato sauce; a flavorful pork tenderloin dish, glazed with balsamic vinegar and topped with capers; and a whole Mediterranean sea bass, filleted tableside, as fresh as if served beachside in Naxos.
We couldn’t resist a bite or two of dessert: a volcano chocolate cake served with imported cherries, and a Greek yogurt mousse topped with figs. Both were delicious.
Avli features an all-Greek wine list—but this isn’t your uncle’s basement retsina. Rather, these wines are imported from the up-and-coming wine regions of Greece and run the gamut from crisp whites to tannic reds. We enjoyed a 2008 Malagousia from Domaine Gerovassiliou in Northern Greece, an aromatic and complex white with a silky finish, and then a 2007 Syrah from Alpha Estate, robust and well balanced like a good Burgundy. Avli also offers a wine reserve of nearly 2,000 bottles—one of the largest Greek wine collections in the country.
We often say that the highest compliment you can give to a suburban restaurant is that it doesn’t feel like you’re eating in a suburban restaurant. Avli succeeds by bringing the taste of Athens, and the buzz of Chicago, to the North Shore. It’s a trip well worth making.
Avli Estiatorio is located at 566 Chestnut Street in Winnetka. For more information, call 847-446-9300, or visit avli.us.