A crystal glass breaks on the polished floor. I’m tempted to yell “Opa!” but figure this is the No. 1 yokel move in a Greek restaurant created by a venerable Greek chef who can fillet a fish blind after roasting it in sea salt he gathered, grain-by-grain, on the island of Kythira. This is not a gyro shack on I-15. It is Estiatorio Milos at the Cosmopolitan on the Strip. Respect must be paid.
So I sip the Amalia Brut, a Greek sparkling wine with the crispness and color of ripening pear. When trays of grilled jumbo prawns and spanakopita float by, I reach. And reach. I know there are many more courses to come, but I can’t resist. The prawns are patchworks of glistening pink meat, crispy char and flecks of green herb, so seductive that I toss the bamboo skewer and get to work with my fingers so not a morsel will be left in the tail. The pastry melts in my mouth, as fine layers of olive oil-brushed phyllo crack into a hot filling of velvety spinach, onion and cheese.
Nearby, a server shines the bottom of his sterling champagne tray, the part no one sees. It is a small hint of the quality we’re about to experience.
Host Ryan Scott invites us to take in the display of fresh fish just off the kitchen, a signature of Milos and a tribute to chef Costas Spiliadis’ devotion to hunting down the world’s “incredible ingredients.” Today’s feast, part of Vegas Uncork’d, is called “At the Fish Market,” and now I see and smell why. In a huge diorama of crushed ice are lobsters and langoustines, sea scallops and tsipouras, octopus and a row of soft-shell crab so fresh they look like they were just pulled from the Bellagio fountains next door. From the clear eyes of the fish to the perfect whiteness of the ice and the salty whiff of ocean in the air, it is the Mount Olympus of fish.
Seated at family-size tables, we watch Spiliadis break down the freshness of a sinagrida, “fish for the kings.” Is it shiny? Does it smell right? Is it firm? He says he still has scars from fishmongers who preferred he didn’t touch the day’s catch before buying. How do you really get the best fish? First, he says, bluff the fishmonger into thinking that last piece of salmon you bought was crap; then, when he gives you his best piece, make sure he knows how much you appreciate it. Over time, trust and affection will build, and so will the quality of the fish.
Then he tells a story about traveling his native Greece with a food writer, who accused him of setting it up so they would only eat the best the country had to offer.
“‘You are a fraud,’ he said. ‘You fixed the whole trip. It is impossible that a whole people eat like that,’” Spiliadis says, laughing at the memory of his friend’s words. He agreed to let the writer pick a random exit off the highway and a restaurant from there, where Spiliadis was not to say a word. He prayed to Zeus. They ate at a tiny tavern by the beach in a village of about 20 houses and the best, cheapest langoustines the writer had ever eaten. “Zeus did his miracle. It was a beautiful, clean, aromatic, warm restaurant. I saw things swimming in the ice in this little nowhere,” says Spiliadis, his eyes sparkling.
He could tell stories all day, and we would sit rapt, but Scott reminds us that food is on the table. We begin with the Milos Special, paper-thin rounds of fried zucchini and eggplant with nuggets of fried cheese and an anchor of creamy tzaziki. It is addicting, but we save room for fresh-baked bread with a quartet of Mediterranean spreads: skordalia (almond, garlic and olive oil), taramosalata (whitefish caviar, olive oil and sweet onion), htipiti (roasted peppers, feta and olive oil) and more tzatziki (Greek yogurt, cucumber and garlic). I dip the bread and the fried vegetables in a pool of olive oil so pure it is almost green. The flavor brings me back to a moment in 2001, standing on the Acropolis in Athens, blown away by the ancientness of the Parthenon and the white city touching earth and sky in all directions.
While we munch, Spiliadis makes the rounds with a platter that holds a pristine octopus. He explains that the best way to tenderize is either to beat the dead creature against some rocks right after catching it or to put it in a washing machine with salt and let it spin. But before we try it charcoal-broiled, we are invited to dig into plates of calamari, the springy tubes and crunchy tentacles of squid disappearing so fast the servers bring our table an extra.
- Estiatorio Milos
I’m sitting with a retired, poker-loving Texas couple and a family of self-proclaimed “rednecks” from Florida. It is Grandpa’s first trip to Vegas with his daughter, grandson (aka V-neck) and granddaughter and her boyfriend (aka Crew-neck), and he sagely chose this event for his deflowering. We bond over talk of food porn and nominate Mr. Texas to be our “table captain,” as he has dined many times at Milos. The octopus, he says, is about to knock our socks into the next county.
Honest to Poseidon, it is one of the best things I have ever eaten. The flesh is perfectly charred and topped with oregano, wild Santorini capers and a simple caramelized glaze of red wine vinegar and more of that wonderful olive oil. It’s tender and smoky and so good that it makes the next course of soft-shell crab with a salad of bitter radicchio seem a waste of space in my stomach, even though it too is delicious with Domaine Gerovassiliou sauvignon blanc and its Malagousia, which comes from a rare Greek grape.
We are presented with two whole grilled lobsters, spectacles of electric orange shell, fresh parsley and buttery, sweet hunks of meat in the claws and tails served only with piles of lemon ready to squeeze. But the real spectacle is about to happen, as Spiliadis positions himself over a baked lavraki or Mediterranean bass completely entombed in Kythira salt. “Sea salt, one of the greatest things that God has given us. … It has all the taste and minerals and elements of the environment,” he says, chipping away the crust to reveal the scales of a whole, steaming fish. He makes one cut at the tail and then rolls the skin and bones onto a fork. I get the very first serving, a sliver of pale pink crowned with capers, fresh herbs and a drizzle of something that honors the aroma and flavor of the fish. I wait for the rest of the table, but grandpa looks me in the eye and tells me not to. “It’s hot,” he says, adding, “good girl” when I go for a forkful.
The mouth-feel is not flaky so much as creamy. And the taste is anything but salty. It is the ocean itself, vibrant and basic. And the side of rainbow chard sauteed in olive oil and lemon is a surprisingly scene-stealing foil.
Spiliadis appears by my side and asks how it is. I can only grin and sigh as I chew. “It’s divine,” I finally say.
“There is no magic,” he says, explaining that I could make this in my own kitchen. No offense to the man, but I seriously disagree.
And then, utterly stuffed, we stare down at two platters of baklava, galaktoboureko and something called “Chocolate Sin,” with sparkling glasses of amber-hued Greek Muscat.
“We are food sluts; that’s what we are,” says Mama Florida. She and I agree about that and the dish we can’t pronounce (Crew-neck dubs it the “Galifianakis”). It is the best, with a thin crust of honeyed phyllo around light custard made a bit more complex with sweet lemon and a few candied nuts. The baklava is, of course, phenomenal. And while the mousse-like wedge of chocolate with fresh strawberries and raspberries is sinful, V-neck rightly says that it’s just unnecessary next to the other two. After all, this is Greece. Who needs chocolate?
As I take the last bite of the best meal I’ve eaten so far in this city, Grandpa asks, “Is that right, or is it right?” Again, all I can do is grin.