"I got into this business to change how people think about Greek food." That's how 63-year-old Costas Spiliadis greets me as we sit down for lunch. With the opening of his Estiatorio Milos inside the Cosmpolitan fast approaching, he's living at the Mandarin Oriental these days, training his staff round the clock. He's ready to be questioned, Greek to Greek, about running the best Greek restaurants in the world.
First, about the name. "Estia," he tells me, "means the center or focal point of the house. Torio is Greek for food." Thus, (colloquially) an estiatorio is an eating establishment more refined and upscale than a taverna. Much like the difference between a French bistro and a restaurant, or an Italian osteria and a ristorante, I chime in, meekly and shamefully admitting my Greek blood comes without much understanding of the language.
- Estiatorio Milos
- At the Cosmopolitan, 698-7930
One thing I've got plenty of, however, is disdain for most American/Greek restaurants. So without missing a beat, I jump right to the question: Why is Greek food so uniformly mediocre outside of Greece? "I don't want to get anyone mad at me," he says with a sly smile, "but let's just say the cooks who came to America and popularized Greek food only had a limited culinary vocabulary. They cooked the food that they knew, not necessarily the best food and recipes Greece has to offer."
That "best" is what Milos will be all about. Imported fish, cheeses, oils, spices and produce from the cradle of Western civilization, the likes of which have never been tasted west of the Mississippi. When Milos opened his first restaurant in Montreal 30 years ago, "it was a battle," he says. "I banned all butter from the restaurant. Olive oil had a negative connotation. People protested, but within a couple of years they were the same ones commenting on the aromatics in the [different] oils."
He seems slightly but understandably indignant at my suggestion that, no matter how pristine and delicious his food will be, Americans (read: the Las Vegas tourist market) might not be ready to pay upscale prices for what is essentially a simple, product-driven cuisine. "It is an art to create beauty in simple terms," he's quick to respond. "Marble [like the kind that adorns the entire restaurant, and is from the same quarry that supplied the original Parthenon] is so beautiful, you just have to put it there and you create beauty. In Greece, going back thousands of years, we have an innate respect for ourselves and what nature gives us. Because we had the best ingredients in our hands, we didn't need to over-manipulate them, like the French do."
It occurs to me while he's saying this that he's right: French chefs often can't leave well enough alone. How many times have you heard, "Things should taste like what they are" coming from a Michelin-starred luminary, only to be presented a plate of protein wrapped around another incarnation of that foodstuff, napped with a sauce (or two) and studded with enough accents to decorate a Christmas tree. "It's hubris," he continues. "Chefs don't practice what they preach. Their pride makes them impose themselves on their ingredients. In Greece, we had the best materials already in our hands, so we never had to create a cuisine where you needed to 'restore' anything. But even with superior raw ingredients all around us, we had to discipline ourselves not to commit hubris in our cooking."
Discipline is what has driven Spiliadis (and Milos' food) from the beginning. In 1979, he was one of the first restaurateurs to buy directly from the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan. In those pre-FedEx days, he personally drove seven hours each way from Montreal, several times a week, to fill up his van with seafood of unheard-of freshness for his customers. "After four hours of waiting, I convinced the Blue Ribbon Fish Company (no relation to the Cosmopolitan's Blue Ribbon restaurant) to sell me two boxes (20 pounds) of true Gulf of Mexico red snapper. I can still see those boxes sitting in the back of my car in my mind's eye," he says, beaming over his coup all these years later. "We went on to get all of our products this way, cultivating relationships that endure to this day, buying directly from small boats and small farmers."
Milos' Las Vegas chefs will send a van to Southern California twice a week for produce, and Spiliadis promises "pure, clean fish from environmentally protected (sound) areas of a quality you've never gotten before." (Don't tell Paul Bartolotta or Rick Moonen.) "Dining in our restaurants is an interactive experience," he continues. "Diners will choose what they would like, how much they want to spend and how they would like it cooked. You are a full participant in what comes to your table. It's what we do in Greece. It's the most natural way of eating."
True enough that. If he's right, and many think he is, dining out is going back to basics. Gimmicky food is over. Elegant simplicity (at a price) has come back into style. And Greek food will never be the same in the Mojave again.