Summer eating means at least two things. The eating is more casual -- it's perfectly fine to use your fingers to taste and eat. And the eating is generally done outside in pleasant weather. Often is the case that one is fulfilled and the other woefully neglected; think heavy food on a sunny patio or seasonally appropriate plates in a freezing cocoon.
Aristo's is one of the few restaurants that synthesizes these simple principles. Locals flock to the patio-abundant block of 1300 East near the University of Utah, where they can find seafood, Southeast Asian and now, a completely revamped showcase of Greek cuisine.
Don't get me wrong -- I'm the first to compose a paean to the virtues of a fine gyro, but to consider this folded delight to be the end all of Greek food is myopic. Extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, fresh lemon juice, herbs and vegetables alone sound simple. But when combined under the advice of a Greek recipe, some dishes can be redolent of sun-drenched, far-off places.
The recently redesigned menu emphasizes lesser known, but no less delicious dishes that underline the pleasure of a simply baked baby eggplant filled with feta cheese and fresh mint in a tomato sauce (imam baldi, $15.95). With so few components, much could go wrong. But the velvety eggplant is a pleasurable puree, the sharp feta and fresh mint function as yin and yang and the bright tomato sauce isn't of the eggplant parmesan ilk.
A good way to experience this new approach -- and as an excuse to linger on the patio -- is to order a succession of small plates or meze. Order a few and the table looks dazzlingly abundant with your preferred spread. You dictate the pace of the meal and most of it can be enjoyed without silverware. If you don't mind a bit of last minute legwork -- a squeeze of fresh lemon and a shake of Greek sea salt that is placed on every table -- it's the ultimate tactile experience.
The left page of the menu is where you can find familiar hummus ($6.95), which in Aristo's case is house-made and delicious in flavor and texture and the creamy cucumber goodness of tzatziki ($6.95). The orektika plate ($16.95) lets you choose three spreads and comes with Aristo's excellent house-made pita. The unleavened bread is soft, supple, addictive alone or with the garlickly skordalia ($6.95) which also is the dip for fried sliced zucchini in the kolokithakia ($7.95). The only time we noticed problems with service was when the pita wasn't replenished as promised. Such is the bitterness of the ravenous and pita-addicted.
Also on the same page is a luscious tyropita ($6.95): think spanokopita without the spinach. Then there's a marinated chilled baby octopus salad ($9.95). The chunks are wonderfully dense and meaty, almost like sinking your teeth into silky chicken. Marides ($9.95), deep-fried smelt, come head-less, but otherwise whole, coated in a crispy batter. Eat them with your fingers like French fries. The lemon isn't simply garnish: Squeeze it all over the plate. I like to season each smelt with a sprinkling of sea salt before I eat it. Put manners aside and nibble on these 3- to 4-inch tender fish and notice the lemony perfume on your fingers. The idea here is to eat them as piping hot and crisp as possible.
Seafood bodes well in entrees, too. The swordfish kebab (xifias kebabs, $19.95) were slightly overcooked, but well-seasoned. The fennel salad paired with it was a different take on slaw -- crisp, refreshing and with the barest hint of fresh anise. The seared halibut (latholemono, $19.95) comes draped with a vinaigrette-type sauce of onions, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil and a side of roasted, caramelized squash.
The vegetables alone were delicious. Whatever you get entrée or meze-wise, consider ordering some horta ($8.50). These simple greens (grown by Aristo's family) are boiled, drained and served with a slick of olive oil. The lemon that arrives with them is, like its cousin on the marides plate, meant to be doused over the greens. The more acidity, the better. Also, reach for that sea salt. As soon as you do this last bit of tinkering, you truly behold the spellbinding power of extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice. The tender, toothy greens are a refreshing take on a traditional green salad and the perfect foil to the rich breaded, stuffed chicken cutlet with a mushroom-green onion sauce, spinach and feta (kotopoulo yemisto, $16.95).
Yes, Aristo's does have souvlaki and gyros and interior seating that's bold in color, translating the Mediterranean warmth indoors when the patio isn't open. But when the latter is, it's tempting to wait a little while longer for a table within earshot of the piped-in or Thursday night live Greek music with a mound of those lemon-spiked marides. A meal here is the closest, and most flavorful, option for a stay-cation that I can think of.
Bottom line » Order a succession of meze (small plates) like garlicky skordalia, excellent hummus, fried marides, baby octopus and crunchy tyropita (spanokopita without the spinach). For entrees try the halibut with lemon sauce and the roasted eggplant with feta and mint.
Location » 224 S. 1300 East, Salt Lake City; 801-581-0888
Hours » 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Saturday; and 5-10 p.m. Sundays
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$
Liquor » Full bar
Corkage » $10
Reservations » Accepted
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » Yes
On-site parking » No
Credit cards » All major