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).
This pause between courses — a deep sigh — was occasioned by the typical (of most restaurants) drop-off in flavor once we hit the entrées, which ranged from reasonably good-but-forgettable to not-so-hot-at-all.
In the first category were seared sea scallops with saffron risotto and lobster tomato fumet. (There are no lobster dishes on this menu to furnish spare carapaces to make a really rich lobster stock.) The scallops were nicely cooked, the saffron risotto pleasant, with the correct texture, and any lobster flavor was subtle to the point of imperceptible.
The catch of the day is authentic Greek cooking: a pan-roasted whole small fish (currently loup de mer) garnished with baby field greens and light tomato sauce (which the menu calls “so-vou” — another word absent from the indexes of my Greek cookbooks). The skin is terrifically crispy, the meat tender. But we’re not actually hanging out with Greek fishermen on a beach, sharing the literal catch of the day in its pristine state — we’re in an urban restaurant eating fish caught a few days earlier. It needs a little something more. (At Chinese seafood restaurants, even when the fish is scooped live out of the tank and cooked on the spot, it still comes with flavor enhancers like ginger, garlic, scallions.) This would be a good dish to coat with a host of those caramelized lemon slices from the calamari, or perhaps to serve with avgolemono (egg-lemon sauce) alongside, or even a dip of lemon aioli. Simplicity is good, but it can be oversimplified.
Moussaka ravioli turns out to be ethnologically fascinating, although we found it disappointing in the eating. It consists of yogurt-dough pasta pockets with thick, chewy skins (there’s the rub), containing a combination of minced roasted lamb and vegetables (e.g., eggplant), finished with an ouzo-tinged béchamel sauce. (Its theme song could be “Béchamel Mucho,” but in fact it’s not that thick a coating.) This could be terrific were the faintly sour and flavorful pasta rolled out much thinner. The moment I tasted the dish, I recognized it as a far-flung relative of an Afghan dish called mantu, lamb-stuffed ravioli with yogurt sauce. (You can get a fine version of the latter at Chopahn, across the street. A spicier version called chuchwara is the national dish of Uzbekistan, just to the north.) Plunging into my Greek cookbooks, I discovered that Exy’s chef has accidentally recreated and gussied-up an ancient Cretan dish called manti — lamb ravioli with garlic-tinged yogurt sauce. If there are any gastro-anthropologists out there who can explain how, despite the huge geographical separation, Crete and Afghanistan could end up with nearly the same dish called by nearly the same name, I’d really love to hear from you.
A tender braised lamb shank had a nice mint orzo cake alongside and a Cabernet demi-glace but was otherwise nothing special. It came with tough, bitter greens (“braised horta”) — not Swiss chard, but one of those field greens that soul-food cooks simmer for hours with the smoked-pig product of their choice and finish off with lashes of vinegar and hot sauce. The soul-food cooks have a better formula than Exy. Roasted halloumi chicken was an airline breast with halloumi cheese stuffed under some of the very crispy skin, but the meat was overcooked and direly dry. It too came with those tough greens, along with some good moist rice. “Care to try some of tomorrow’s chicken salad?” I asked as I passed the plate along to the next victim.
The menu also includes crispy codfish, an Atlantic (farm-raised and artificially colored) salmon dish, and those San Diego requisites for all local menus, a rib-eye and a filet mignon.
There are none of the expected Greek desserts here. Far as I’m concerned, that is probably a tactical error. Chic or not chic, when you think Greek, you start to yearn for those honey-dripping sweets, whether made of filo or fried pastry dough. Instead: halloumi cheesecake. It looks pretty, with a frizz on top of sweet preserved lemon, and comes with Mission figs, walnuts, and ouzo crème anglaise. It’s a good try but thuddingly heavy. Pear Napoleon has crisp filo pieces for its layers, and honey-raspberry chantilly (whipped) cream, but somehow isn’t very vibrant. Best dessert: fresh berries in sweetened yogurt. That, at least, embodies absolute clarity about what it is and what it’s made from.
When we first arrived and gathered on the patio, an army of young males in ball caps was fiercely double-timing it down the street to Petco. When we were leaving, they were heading rapidly the other way. Padres must’ve lost; they looked teed-off. They never even looked at Exy. “Do you think belly dancing…?” Sam asked. Rebecca said, “Maybe that would work. It goes against what they’re trying to do here, but maybe belly dancing and bouzouki would catch all these young guys.” But we needn’t have worried. When I phoned two nights later at opening time on a weekend night, in hopes of interviewing the chef, the kitchen was already slamming with a full house to feed. Given that prices are about half those at most restaurants a block to the west, and the atmosphere is so relaxed and comfortable, maybe Exy is plenty sexy enough.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Carter Shuffler is a local boy who’s gone far — around the world and back, in the U.S. Navy, which also helped finance his cooking-school tuition at the CCA in San Francisco. “I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was a child. I was always in the kitchen with my mom and grandma. Starting in junior high school, I became interested in cooking. I started working in kitchens as a dishwasher, busboy, became a waiter. In high school, I wasn’t really the brightest kid in the class. I had other things I wanted to do, and I thought, ‘I really want to open a restaurant of my own someday. I really want to know about this.’ I started doing a little research and decided to join the Navy, see the world. It was the complete opposite — didn’t cook at all, just scrubbed pots and pans for a few weeks, like everybody does. But I did have a chance to go into the marketplaces of Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states. Huge spice mounds, and they give you foods to taste for free, and you leave full — and then you go back the next day and buy the foods you tasted.
“After four years I got out and decided I wanted to go to culinary school and did very well. The GI Bill helped, and I also had a job and a half at restaurants there. I’d go to school for eight to ten hours a day, then I’d work a job in the evening, and then get up and work again in the morning. I was hired at the City Club as a prep cook, and in about a year and a half, I was executive sous-chef. I got to work there with one of my mentors, Robert Reash, who’d come over to work from the Mansion [Dean Fearing’s famed Dallas restaurant]. I needed to expand my horizons, so I accepted a position as executive sous-chef at the Carnelian Room [a deluxe hotel restaurant] under my great mentor, James Chan, and then I was courted to go over to the Clift Hotel as executive sous-chef. I learned a lot about Asian and fusion cuisine from chef Maria Manso, and when she left I was promoted to executive chef.
“My wife and I talked about moving back to San Diego to raise a family. I grew up in Point Loma, and I didn’t want to raise a family in San Francisco. And she happened to accept a position at Blue Shield down here, and we moved, ready to start over. And George Katakalidis, owner of all the Daphne’s, was opening a full-service Mediterranean restaurant. We courted each other back and forth, and in five months, we had enough information to start this restaurant, Exy. I’d had extensive training in Mediterranean cuisine, and I would go to the Greek restaurant, Kokkari, all the time when I was in San Francisco. To prepare for Exy, I would just immerse myself, talking with the owner. I’d say, ‘Tell me about your childhood, what you remember about eating in Greece.’ We’d play ideas off each other, and I was getting firsthand knowledge of what he was wanting to do with the food — to contemporize it, without making it formal or stuffy. We didn’t want to do traditional Greek dishes, we wanted to do contemporary Mediterranean cuisine. The conventioneers on expense accounts can maybe sustain some of the Gaslamp prices, but above all, we want to get the locals to come in and have a great meal that’s very reasonably priced for downtown. I think we’re succeeding in that. It’s such a cool, loungy, sexy place. And as all the construction is going on east of Sixth, we become the new Fifth.
“I am having fun every day at work. I have a great crew, a great sous-chef, a great, supportive owner, a great general manager — and we’re all on the same level field. There’s no hierarchy, there’s no temperament. I don’t have a big ego. I don’t find fault with everything anyone does, like some of the traditional French chefs do. I feel like I draw the best out of people I work with because I’m having fun, and I want them to have a good time at the job, too.”
Exy Chic Greek
*** (Good to Very Good)
789 Sixth Avenue (at F Street), Gaslamp, 619-238-0412, exysandiego.com.
HOURS: Monday–Saturday, 5:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m.; till 10:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
PRICES: Appetizers, salads, flatbreads, $6–$15; entrées, $16–$30 (most about $25); desserts, $8–$12.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Greek-inspired cooking, more seafood than usual, with a few traditional dishes, but mainly creative spin-offs based on Greek ingredients and flavors. Ample wine list with plenty by the glass, including some modern Greek whites. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Blue Zodiac ouzo-flavored martini; roasted shrimp-stuffed calamari; saganaki cheese; seared sea scallops; catch of the day (pan-roasted whole fish); berries in yogurt.
NEED TO KNOW: Website includes music resembling the restaurant’s. Nonstandard Greek menu (e.g., no dolmas, kebabs, or baklava). Ten choices (appetizers and salads, one pasta) for lacto-vegetarians; a few can be vegan-adapted (“hold the cheese”). Inexpensive nearby parking at Park It on Market.
[2009 Editor's Note: Exy has since closed.]