Balos Estiatorio has opened at 46 South Main St. in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square.
By Ronni Newton
The menu at Balos Estiatorio includes some dishes that one would not find at a “typical” Greek restaurant, but according to Chef Cosmas Bisticas, it’s authentic Greek food that is a nod to the ancient cuisine of the Mediterranean country.
The phrase that Bisticas, who goes by “Cosmo,” uses to describe the Balos is: “refined or upscale traditional Greek food with an emphasis on seafood.”
The atmosphere also evokes a seaside setting. Bamboo and thatch hang from the ceiling, creating an intimate environment despite the restaurant’s vast size and high ceilings. Diners lounge against throw pillows cushioning the white, cast concrete benches, or on blonde oak chairs. Trees are illuminated by carefully placed spotlights, and rattan lanterns hang over the tables. Filmy white curtains separate the bar from the dining room.
Balos is the newest venture for George Chatzopoulos, who owns West Hartford’s “The Simple Greek” fast casual franchise in Corbin’s Corner, as well as Chip’s Family Restaurant which has six Connecticut locations. For Balos, he has partnered with his longtime friend Odysseus Rethis, who was an original partner in Chip’s before launching a career in the fashion industry and as a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch.
Rethis actually got the idea for Balos when he was working at Merrill Lynch in West Hartford and would often eat at Besito, the upscale Mexican restaurant that formerly occupied the 46 South Main St. space in Blue Back Square and closed in July 2017.
Balos General Manager Rich Rebusmen, who has decades of restaurant management experience in a variety of settings, said that a real estate broker contacted Rethis after Besito closed, thinking that it may be a good space to open a Chip’s location, but Rethis had another idea. He wanted to partner with Chatzopoulos, to bring a concept similar to his favorite New York restaurants – a place like Milos Estiatorio – to West Hartford.
Balos, which means “on top of the seas,” is the name of a beautiful and mystical beach in Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. The menu reflects the traditional Mediterranean diet of Greece, but not what has come to be known as Greek food in the United States. Rather, it’s based on simplicity and healthy food, mainly seafood that you would find in Greece, cooked in typical Greek fashion, but with just a bit of a twist, Rebusmen said.
It’s anything but kitschy, he said.
“It’s a more modern interpretation of traditional Greek Island cuisine, rather than what became popular in the 60s, 70s, and 80s,” Bisticas said, similar to the paleo diet, what the ancient Greeks would eat. This type of restaurant has become popular in New York over the past five years, he said.
A selection of whole fish, delivered each day from City Fish in Boston, takes center stage on a bed of ice along the back wall of the restaurant, next to the kitchen. Diners can select their fish from what is fresh for the day – which may include red snapper, branzino (European sea bass), royal dorado, or Maine lobster – and the chef will prepare it in the traditional Greek manner, grilled and lightly seasoned, with a selection of sides that include lemon potatoes, Greek fries, roasted vegetables, or spinach rice.
To begin dinner, a guest may want to select either a single “spread” or a trio served with grilled artisan pita bread and crudités. Choices include Tzatiziki, spiced feta with habanero peppers, Skordalia (whipped potatoes and garlic), and melitzanosalata (puréed eggplant and tahini).
There are appetizers with specialities that include a semolina-crusted and lightly-fried calamari with basil aioli, or sashimi grade octopus. The sesame feta is topped with tomato marmalade and the Dolmades (grape leaves) are hand-rolled and stuffed with quinoa, rice, apricots, and herbs, and served in a tahini-lemon sauce. Quinoa is one of the real roots of Greek cuisine, Bisticas said.
Another specialty appetizer is the “Drunken Cheeks” or Bekris Mezes, veal cheeks braised in red wine with peppers and tomato served with creamy feta and sage polenta. Bisticas said that the dish is traditionally prepared with pork or beef, and although he uses the same cooking methods, the veal and the polenta make it more elegant.
A full array of salads include a Greek village salad that features Kumato tomatoes and the Beet Pantzaria which combines pickled heirloom beets, potato-garlic purée, arugula, shaved fennel, scallions, dill, and pine nuts in a pomegranate vinaigrette.
While fresh seafood is the specialty, there are also meats on the menu, including a 20-oz. bone-in rib eye, and marinated lamb chops.
Gluten-free and vegetarian options are also available.
Moussaka, certainly a traditional Greek dish, is also on the menu, layers of eggplant, potatoes, and seasoned chopped sirloin, topped with béchamel sauce, and it’s presented elegantly in its own ceramic dish.
“I’m trying to present the food in a more deliberate way,” Bisticas said. The flavors and aromas are Greek, and some of the ingredients are “rustic,” but the preparation is elevated, more elegant.
“It’s everything you would find on a traditional Greek menu, prepared with acute attention to detail and a distinctive epicurean approach,” Rebusmen said.
“Polished but playful,” he added.
Wine – Greek wine – is also a cornerstone of the experience at Balos. “We are the only restaurant of this nature in the state,” Rebusmen said, and Balos offers 120 wine labels with about 40 percent of them from Greece.
Ioannis G. Tsapos, of Dionysos Imports in Virginia, is a specialist in Greek wines, and brought about 100 different types to Balos for Rebusmen and Bisticas to sample as they developed the restaurant’s wine list. Since the wines are not household names, suggestions are printed on the menus, and servers are also well-versed in recommendations.
“It’s good, clean eating mixed with great Greek wine,” Rebusmen said. There is also a selection of specialty cocktails.
The investment in the restaurant is significant, and Rebusmen said that the space was completely gutted, with every piece of kitchen equipment left behind by Besito replaced.
Most materials were imported from Greece, including the marble slab bar.
Every detail was considered, and although the process of making the thatch flame retardant was laborious and required plenty of consultation with the fire marshal – each piece had to be soaked before being attached to a metal frame – the owners “wanted that intimate feeling” of dining in a seaside restaurant in Greece.
“This is a flagship restaurant for George and Odysseus,” Rebusmen said. “It’s going to take West Hartford by surprise.”
Balos seat 160, plus 10 seats at the bar. Patio seating will be added next spring.
The decor, the food, and the wine all combine for what Bisticas hopes feels like a visit to a beach in Greece – without leaving West Hartford. “We want our guests to feel they’re on a beach.”
Balos had a soft opening last week, and a grand opening will be announced in several weeks.
Balos is currently open for dinner only, with plans to add lunch and brunch in early 2019. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday from 4 p.m.-1 a.m., Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m.-2 a.m., and Sunday from 4 p.m.-1 a.m. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.
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