With all the new restaurants that are opening in town, we could easily write about two or three places a week without ever talking about restaurant that’s been open for more than a year. It’s a great problem to have, from the perspective of innovation and a constantly expanding restaurant scene. But it’s definitely a challenge if you’re trying to get a handle on everything that’s out there for DC diners.
Thankfully, we were enticed to check out Mourayo as a result of a recent Groupon offering. Despite appearing on Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants list four years in a row, the Connecticut Avenue Greek restaurant never really jumped out at us as a must-try. But sweeten the deal with that Groupon discount, and it leapt to the front of our list.
When you think of Greek cuisine, chances are you envision the staples of the Mediterranean diet: olive oil, lemons, fish, lamb. If so, Mourayo is the place for you – they pride themselves on delivering a blend of contemporary and traditional experiences in a nautically-inspired setting. While specials will necessarily vary from visit to visit, the main menu offers everything from mussels in an ouzo broth to a ground-duck mousaka.
More on our visit to this “fisherman’s safe harbor” after the jump.
We arrived at Mourayo early for a 7:30 reservation on a rainy weekday night, and it was pretty clear they’d have no problem seating us. There were a few occupied tables, but it wasn’t especially busy. As it turns out, even on a weeknight the restaurant does the majority of its business in the later evening – the place started to fill up as our entrees arrived and was actually quite busy by the time we were finished.
Walking to our table, the evidence of Mourayo’s nautical inspiration was everywhere. The light wood of the entry way carried through into the dining room, where the wall was decorated with round portholes. The bright white and vibrant blue of Greek paintings bring color into the space. And there’s plenty of seafood on the menu.
Elizabeth knew exactly what she wanted to start with – the dish had been calling to her from their online menu. Htapodi stin Shara me Fava, it was called. Grilled octopus served with a fava bean puree and a drizzled octopus-ink vinaigrette. As exciting as the dish’s description made it out to be, the actual presentation was even more impressive.
There on one side of the dish lay a grilled octopus, splayed out and looking almost like a starfish, with just a bit of char toward the ends of the tentacles to show that it had been cooked. It looked tempting, but we know how easy it is to overcook octopus and take it from meltingly tender to frustratingly rubbery so we were cautious as we went to cut into it. We needn’t have been – our knives slid right through as though the octopus were a scallop. The meat was smoky and sweet and it stayed tender from beginning to end. At the other end of the plate were a delicious garlicky yellow fava bean puree and a tangy salad with chopped octopus bites. It was an impressively balanced dish that showed off the kitchen’s mastery of Greek flavors and techniques.
For her entree, Elizabeth opted to move from sea to land with the Kouneli Kritiko, a pasta special that served up rabbit ragout over handmade papardelle noodles. The rabbit, braised in a sauce of red wine and herbs, was deeply flavorful and offered up a terrific savory note that was offset by bright, acidic tomatoes. It was another presentation that offered plenty of opportunities for missteps (overcooked pasta, tough rabbit, bland sauce), but Mourayo delivered on every aspect.
I’m man enough to admit when I’ve been out-ordered, but I’ll start out by saying that I had fully expected our entrees to be difficult to compare head-to-head. One of the fish entrees on the regular menu caught my eye: Bakaliaros “Santorini.” Growing up in an Italian-American family, I came to enjoy the taste of bacalao, or salt cod. Chopped up into a salad with vinegar, peppers, olives and tomatoes it’s a special treat. So when I saw that Mourayo offers salt cod sauteed with sun-dried tomatoes and potato skordalia, I decided to give it a shot.
Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for me. There were simply too many big flavors competing in the dish, and they failed to come together to form something bigger and better. The salty fish seemed to clash with the tangy sun-dried tomatoes for dominance, though both went well separately with the skordalia base. Eventually I ended up putting the tomato off to the side and just enjoying the salt cod with the garlic-potato puree.
With prices between $16 and $26 per entree, Mourayo represents a more upscale Greek dining experience. The flavors were definitely similar to those found at Zaytinya (our previous foray into Greek cuisine) under Top Chef contestant Mike Isabella, but they had a distinctly more home-style and traditional vibe. Thank goodness for that Groupon – if not for that, it might have been another four years before we tried Mourayo. Now that we know what we’ve been missing, we’re eagerly looking forward to our next visit.