You either love or hate Portland’s trendy Pearl District, but the indisputable fact is that those yuppies have a bevy of quality restaurants to choose from when they feel the need to get out of their converted warehouse lofts and spend some coin. Eleni’s Philoxenia is a Crete and Greek restaurant that matches the high standards of its neighboring eateries while being defiantly un-Pearl in price and pretentiousness.
Philoxenia is Greek for hospitality, and Eleni’s easily lives up to its name. Like many other Pearl establishments, the restaurant is situated in an old warehouse building with high ceilings and swank decor. The space is dimly lit, oblong and cozy. High backed booths line one wall while tables and a nice bar dominate the rest of the space.
The menu is an impressive tome of Crete and Greek dishes which can seem a tad intimidating and unpronounceable at first. Fortunately Philoxenia’s wait staff is eager to please and can easily decipher for you the difference between garithes (tiger prawns) and gigantes (lima beans).
Service and atmosphere certainly account for a large portion of the dining experience, but the most important thing about eating out is and should always be the food. Eleni’s takes care of that aspect with the same subtle aplomb that permeates the rest of the establishment.
Suffering the after effects of being out in a particularly foul January night recently, Philoxenia had the perfect comfort food to make me forget I was frigid and soaked from the knees down. After debating between several intriguing types of Tiger prawns, I decided on a garithes me skortho, prawns sauteed in olive oil and garlic finished with sherry. The dish made a fine start to the meal. The prawns were huge and the sherry sauce was very tasty and peppery, though there was perhaps slightly too much salt.
Philoxenia offers just four meat entrees, a couple of specialty salads that break up the monotony of Caesar and chef salads that is the standard fare at most restaurants and a baker’s dozen of pasta dishes. I didn’t go to a Crete restaurant to eat pasta, so I asked my server to help me choose between the rabbit hindquarter and lamb leg.
Though I’m usually wary of eating small game animals, the rabbit hindquarter proved that my suspicions were unfounded. Called kouneli stifatho, the tender braised meat was complimented nicely with what amounted to a light tomato sauce and some crispy potatoes. Vinegary broccoli interacted nicely with the citrus and rosemary infused meat, rounding out the meal and making it deceptively filling.
Because I had no room to finish the meal the proper way (with some baklava) the check was a very acceptable $23. The waiter was very gracious after he accidentally overcharged me, proving that Philoxenia is concerned with equal parts food and service.
If you’re in the Pearl and you happen to walk past Eleni’s Philoxenia, the outside appearances might seem characterless like all the other Pearl eateries, but that’s where the similarities end. The food here is the perfect combination of rustic and regal and the servers seem to truly care about your dining experience. I was cold and a little depressed when I got to Philoxenia. I left happy, warm and satisfied. That’s what a good restaurant does.