Avgeria Stapaki thought she’d peaked as a chef. She had worked at MICHELIN starred restaurants Azurmendi in Bilbao, Spain, and Hytra in Athens, Greece. She’s also spent the last six years running the kitchen at lauded Mykonos restaurant Principote, where she served more than 1,500 people a day and generated millions of dollars in revenue during her time there.
Then came the opportunity to own her own place. “I didn’t think about it twice,” Stapaki, who is now the co-owner and chef at Chicago modern Mediterranean restaurant Nisos, says. “I just took the chance.”
It’s been a little more than six months since the opening of the restaurant, which stands out for importing more than 60% of its ingredients from Greece. Caviar, orzo, yogurt, feta cheese, fish, truffles, and more all make their way over from the Mediterranean each week, and Stapaki is hoping to import even more goods in the future.
That’s part of what makes dining at Nisos a thrilling adventure. Read on for four dishes to try at the restaurant.
Octopus with fava and shallot chutney
Before she moved to the U.S., Stapaki says she was only used to seasonal cooking. For example, cauliflower and broccoli weren’t vegetables she was able to prepare in the summer in Greece. One year-round exception, though, was octopus, and Stapaki is glad to have brought her expertise cooking it to the States.
At Nisos, two tentacles are grilled, cut into pieces, and served alongside fava beans grown in Santorini; the octopus, as you might have guessed, also makes its way from the Mediterranean. The dish is finished off with a parsley-infused olive oil, Greek oregano, and a chutney made with shallots
“Most of the time you are eating octopus plain, so I want to show how creative you can be,” Stapaki says. “It is basically sea and earth in one dish.”
Moussaka with potato strings, gruyere foam, and cinnamon tea
The restaurant’s signature dish of moussaka is sort of like a deconstructed lasagna, Stapaki says. The typical ingredients used in the dish—eggplant, ground beef, potatoes, and a bechamel sauce—all get to shine on their own. The roasted eggplant envelopes ground black Angus and is served alongside a gruyere mousse and topped with potato matchsticks. The moussaka gets a theatrical lift from cinnamon-infused tea that’s poured tableside on to dry ice that surrounds the plate.
“I want to show when we cook this dish how our house smells,” Stapaki says referring to the cinnamon aroma that wafts through her home when she prepares moussaka. “We want our guests to travel.”
Aegean sea bass carpaccio with lemon gel, garlic blossoms, and beetroot tapioca chip
This carpaccio is inspired by a post-fishing activity that Stapaki remembers fondly: eating seafood raw with lemon and olive oil. A variation of this carpaccio can be commonly found in Sicily and Greece, but Stapaki has upped the textural contrast with her preparation at Nisos.
Crispy, crimson beetroot and tapioca chips sit atop the thinly sliced sea bass that’s been seasoned with a lemon gel and garlic blossoms for a mildly pungent hit. Shatter the crisps and scoop up the delicate fish for an explosion of textures in your mouth, Stapaki says.
Pavlova’s cheesecake with white chocolate monte, pistachio crumble, strawberry sorbet, meringue, and raspberry powder
Yes, pavlova comes from New Zealand (or Australia, depending on who you ask), but Stapaki couldn’t have her own restaurant without putting her favorite dessert on the menu. As a nod to the fact that she’s now living and working in America, Stapaki decided to marry the delicate meringue creation with a local favorite: the cheesecake.
Don’t expect sugar overload, though. Stapaki’s creation is light on added sugar with the dish getting its sweetness from cooked strawberries and white chocolate flavored with mascarpone cheese. It all sits atop a pistachio crumble that brings a nutty savoriness to the dish.
“It complements the dinner, and it is not heavy,” Stapaki says. “You can eat one bite, and go in for a second, and a third.”
Tanay Warerkar is a content marketing manager at OpenTable.