The principal complaints I have about the Athenian Grill's new brick-and-mortar restaurant are that it's really hard to park at lunch and that food this good should not be served on paper plates and eaten with plastic cutlery.
Beyond that, in three visits, it was easy to understand how the Athenian Grill had become a local favorite during its food-truck incarnation and why this self-service, informal restaurant in Chevy Chase was packed every time I visited.
With some minor exceptions, the Greek food we sampled there was abundant, reasonably priced and prepared well from quality ingredients.
Truly outstanding were the mousaka — the traditional Greek dish of eggplant, lamb and beef baked with a topping of bechamel sauce — and the Greek beef stew, a flavorful turn on a universal dish, which I had with the excellent roasted lemon potatoes. As a vegetable freak, I especially appreciated the wedges of potato, some with a caramelized finish from the roasting, none burned or overcooked, and subtly flavored so that I enjoyed the lemon but never lost the potato. That said, the beef chunks were good meat — none of the attempts I sometimes find to hide fatty, substandard meat in the mix of a stew — in a tomato sauce that was uniquely Greek.
The mousaka is an absolute delight. Light but substantial, a wonderful blend of several textures and flavors with each still distinct and topped by a wonderful bechamel, not the sticky, heavy attempt that this mixture of flour, butter and cream too often turns into.
No complaints either about the spanikopita, the Greek spinach pie that's filled with a blend of spinach and feta cheese encased in phyllo dough. Again, the balance was excellent and the individual parts were distinct and flavorful. Less distinctive but still good was the souvlaki, a skewer of marinated pork tenderloin chunks served on a pita.
Athenian Grill's emphasis on quality meats was also evident in the lamb burger, which is served with tomato and onion. One minor complaint is that the waiter did not ask how we wanted the meat cooked, although it came out as I would have liked, with a little pink in the middle.
On one visit, we tried the lunch special, a chicken cacciatore. Although highly recommended by the staff, I found it a little bland, even sweet. The two appetizers we tried — the roasted red pepper hummus and avgolemono soup — were also acceptable but not impressive. The hummus was a bit too homogenous so that the individual flavors got lost, and for my taste, it should have had more lemon. The soup seemed undistinguished and thin, not the rich mixture that it is at its best. Another point: Serving the soup in a cardboard-like disposable bowl is a downer.
Many dishes are served with a fresh green salad mix, including olives, red onion and feta. It's a nice counterpoint to the dishes but Athenian might do well to offer a choice of dressings. To my taste, the vinaigrette that is the house standard is too sweet when paired with this rich food.
For dessert, we tried the delightful baklava — highly recommended although one should be enough for anyone.
The building and decor set a nice, if very informal, tone, bridging the gap between owner/chef Ilias Pappas' earlier incarnation as a food truck to this location. Although very small, there was attention to detail in the renovation that included some nice touches, like using lath pulled from the walls to make cabinets that display Greek food items that are for sale. The upstairs dining space can be reserved by groups for family-style meals that are served at table.
Athenian Grill offers beer but no wine, and there are vegetarian options.
Address: 313 S. Ashland Ave., behind Chevy Chase Coin Laundry
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu., 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Phone: (859) 303-5048
Other: Parking lot. Many vegetarian options available. Beer served. Soups and salads, $3.50-$6.50; dips and small plates, $4-$10; gyros and sandwiches, $6.50-$9.25; entrees, $7.25-$9.50.