The E in Exy is actually the Greek letter sigma (for S), so the restaurant’s name really transliterates to something like “Sexy,” and that’s what it’s trying to be. It calls itself “Chic Greek,” and it doesn’t look, sound, or cook like standard Greek eateries. The difference starts before you enter, on the little sidewalk patio, where one sweet section is an outdoor lounge with black-cushioned padded benches and small tables furnished with ashtrays (and thick Exy matchbooks). It’s a fun place for an al fresco drink while you wait for the rest of your dinner posse or to sneak out for a puff before dessert. Inside, the bar area includes another lounge, and the white-tablecloth decor is urbane and opulent, with neutral shades and subtle lighting. The room doesn’t sound classically Greek either: The air fills with a loop of disco-like lounge music, bouncy and empty, resembling the soundtrack (minus moans) of a cheap Euro-porn flick. Maybe that’s supposed to make Exy sexy, too.
“I’d rather be listening to bouzouki,” said Sam, as we settled in with Cheryl, Mary Jo, and Rebecca at a comfortable banquette in the dining room, hoping that the bad taste of the music wouldn’t extend to the food. Sam’s from Chicago, home to many excellent Greek restaurants, and he’s been disappointed in the local crop. Greece is a group of islands, right? But when you eat at Greek restaurants here — where’s the fish? There’s so little of it that you wonder if it’s all swum overland to Chicago. What drew us specifically to Exy was that the menu includes plenty of seafood, so we had hopes of authenticity.
Instead, however, the tilt is, if anything, anti-authentic. Although the chef is an enthusiast of San Francisco’s renowned Kokkari Estiatorio (renowned for its real and rustic menu), the concept here isn’t to reproduce traditional Greek cuisine, but to update and sophisticate it into something like a modern generic-Mediterranean cuisine. Exy’s owner is George Katakalidis, who founded Daphne’s Greek Cafe, the largest chain of Greek eateries in the U.S. He and chef Carter Shuffler discussed his childhood memories of family dinners in Greece, and Carter suggested modernizations and modifications of those dishes, and from that interplay, the menu evolved.
Obviously, the owner knows the restaurant business inside out, but Exy faces some special challenges — especially its location, a block east of the official boundary of the Gaslamp. Conventioneers and club kids still eat mainly on Fifth Avenue, so this has been a block where many fine restaurants (Vignola, Cafe 828, L&G Steakhouse) have come to die. (I’m glad to see that the admirable Chopahn is still open across the street. It’s worth your consideration, too — if you enjoy Greek food, you’ll almost surely like the oddly similar Afghan cuisine.) But with the opening of the Ivy next door (and the long-awaited end of the horrendous construction mess across F Street, which has finally given birth to a new building of utter, banal ugliness), Sixth Street is starting to gain some cachet of its own.
Like many of the cuisines from east of the Mediterranean (Armenian, Turkish, Middle Eastern, etc.), Hellenic food shines most in its appetizers and nibbles. Exy presents numerous choices but shuns the standards (stuffed grape leaves, stuffed eggplant, et al.) for a more creative (and generally less labor-intensive) array.
Our very pretty and adept server embodied a cultural oxymoron: she was a smart, well-spoken blonde (probably waitressing her way toward a postgrad degree in rocket science). Dinner began with an amuse-bouche of warm pita triangles and a pleasant, coral-colored variant of aioli. (It tasted a bit “beany,” like hummus, but smoother.) The standout appetizer — best dish on the menu — offers small calamari stuffed with shrimp wrapped in prosciutto, with a light tomato sauce and a garnish of almost transparently thin, lightly sugared, fried lemon slices, wonderfully crisp and sweet-sour against the saline prosciutto.
Grilled baby octopus was picturesque but rather vague — a single limb like a limp young garter snake was draped across the plate, its meat so thoroughly tender it had lost its octopussy feeling. It, too, was robed in a reddish sauce that on this menu is called “koki-nisto” (which I can’t find in any of my Greek cookbooks, but at San Francisco’s Kokkari, it’s a braised lamb shank). It’s served with a Cal-cuisine array of arugula, oranges, and red onion.
Saganaki (kefalotiri cheese melted in flaming brandy and lemon juice) included untraditional capers, which added a nice, tart bite. Grilled Greek meatballs, dry and dense, with a light coat of tomato sauce, tasted just like my homemade version — from a recipe I crumpled up and threw out after trying it once.
And the Greek “threesome” (just forget the sex jokes, okay?) consisted of a tart, spicy eggplant purée, an oddly fizzy-tasting light mousse based on codfish roe (taramasalata), and rather sludgy skordalia (potato-garlic spread), served with warm pita triangles for scooping. A Cretan bread salad (with toasted bread croutons, feta, and young greens) was pleasant and refreshing with its balsamic vinaigrette — and no, balsamic has no Greek roots. Any Cretan connection to these California flavors was lost to my cretinous brain.
If you look on a Greek dinner as a chance to eat grilled proteins, the appetizer list also offers souvlakia (both chicken and shrimp) and grilled lamb chops, along with traditional zucchini cakes with mizithra cheese, and lamb sliders garnished with lettuce, tomato, onions, and tzatziki (yogurt dressing). There are also a group of flatbreads (topped with vegetables, braised short rib, grilled chicken, or roast lamb) offering somewhat more substantial starters or light main dishes. It would be easy and pleasant to make a reasonably priced dinner here of mezethes (appetizers), salad, and possibly a flatbread — a foursome sharing grazes would face food costs of $20 to $30 each and would enjoy much of the best this menu has to offer.
While our group was gathering at the outdoor lounge, we tried a number of wines by the glass, including Amethystos Greek Meritage, a nice, normal white wine with no licorice flavor at all, if you’re one of the many who have tasted a sip of retsina and never wanted another. Rebecca does like licorice, and her Blue Zodiac, a martini with a touch of ouzo, was the color of liquefied aquamarine gems and tasted delicately delicious. For our meze course, we lucked onto a perfect complement to the flavors: Bridlewood Reserve’s sunny-tasting Santa Barbara–grown Viognier. Fruity and vibrant, it was absolutely right to drench the saltiness of the stuffed calamari and the saganaki. The list of reds here edges into serious price issues, and we stayed with affordable Bridlewood and moderately enjoyed their Syrah (but not as much as their Viognier).
[2009 Editor's Note: Exy has since closed.]