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An Island of Mediterranean Cuisine in the Middle of Chicago : Greektown, west of the Loop, has perhaps the nation's finest assortment of Hellenic restaurants.

April 18, 1993|DON ROSE | Rose is a Chicago political writer and restaurant critic.

CHICAGO — Suraiyah spins and twirls across the half-moon stage like a top made of Jello, finger cymbals clashing, her gauzy, sequined scarf and harem pants trailing in the breeze. As the electrified band strums faster, she begins undulating, her hips totally decoupled from her rib cage, her abdomen rippling like the water in a Jacuzzi.

No, it's not a strip show, though her costume is out of Scheherazade via Minsky's. Suraiyah is a belly dancer, a youthful practitioner of an ancient and honored art as it is celebrated at the Neon (meaning "new") Greek Village, the last full-blown nightclub-restaurant in Chicago's Greektown.

Once there were 35 such clubs in this neighborhood, less than a 10-minute taxi ride west of Chicago's Loop. Before the 1950s, as many as 30,000 people were packed into the half-mile-square, triangular area, known as the Delta--the oldest and, at the time, largest Greek settlement in America.

In the mid 1960s, the entire community was uprooted to make room for what is now the University of Illinois at Chicago, leaving behind a three-block stretch of South Halsted Street dotted with a dozen lively restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores. Here you'll find what is arguably the nation's finest collection of Greek restaurants, packed into a single area.

They still call it Greektown, though its 100,000 residents--some estimates are higher--have dispersed and redispersed throughout the city and suburbs, and Chicago's claim as the largest Hellenic population center in the United States has been taken over by New York.

But Chicago remains the capital of the cuisine, which, like kindred foods of the Mediterranean, is rich with savory dips and spreads, fresh seafoods grilled with olive oil, lemon and oregano and hearty roasted and barbecued lamb dishes. And Greektown's restaurants remain popular with both locals and tourists who don't mind traveling into an area that is surrounded by not-so-safe neighborhoods to explore restaurants that are casual but festive, with high spirits and decibel levels on weekend evenings. (Weeknights are quieter but they offer the advantage of no waiting lines.) Considering the paucity of authentic Greek offerings in Southern California, it is definitely worth the effort.

The best way to savor Greek food is in a group, nibbling a little of this, a little of that, family style. Fortunately, Greektown's best places serve ravishing combination platters of appetizers and entrees, so even a single diner can taste a whole array of delicacies.

And it is relatively inexpensive, with appetizers coming in at $2-$5 in most places; typical entrees such as roast lamb or cod with garlic sauce in at $7-$10 and only specialties, such as whole grilled fish or triple-rib lamb chops, hitting $15 per person.

Like the menu at one of the preeminent restaurants, the Parthenon, some Greektown menus are vast, though key items are available everywhere. You will not want to miss, for example, the Parthenon's briny dip called taramosalata, made of whipped fish roe blended with garlic, olive oil and lemon juice, bound with either bread or potatoes. The same seasoning trio at the same restaurant gives pureed baked eggplant a special kick in the dip called melintzanosalata.

At another restaurant, Greek Islands, try skordalia, a sauce of pureed potatoes laced with enough garlic to keep Dracula at bay. Garlic also works magic in a dip of thick yogurt and cucumber called tzatziki.

Octopus, generally well tenderized, comes in many guises: cold in a full-bodied vinaigrette, or grilled with the holy trinity (garlic, olive oil and lemon juice) or hot in a winey casserole. And the grilled version should not be missed at Santorini.

But most famous is gyros (pronounced, yeeros): a garlic and herb-laden loaf of densely packed, minced lamb, beef or a combination of the two, broiled on an upright spit, then sliced thin as it crisps. One of the best is found at Dianna's Opaa, where, as at many places, it is typically served as an appetizer or stuffed into a pita pocket with onions and a dollop of tzatziki.

A tremendous favorite everywhere, as much for the show as the taste, is saganaki: sauteed kasseri cheese, flambeed tableside with the anise liqueur called ouzo, as the waiter holds the insulated serving dish in his hand. To douse it he quenches the flame with a spritz of lemon and shouts "Opaa!" The result is a cheese thatis crusty on the outside and oozing on the inside. Saganaki is a Chicago invention that worked itself back to the old country, much the way Chicago-style pizzas helped Italians reinvent the pie. Several restaurateurs on the strip here claim credit for the invention, with Petros Kogiones of Dianna's Opaa generally thought of by locals as making the most convincing case.

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