After a decade of shifting owners and new restaurants, the dining scene in the Cooper Creek shopping plaza near the intersection of University parkway and I-75 has recently taken a turn to the familiar. Sarasota's Indian stalwart Tandoor moved in earlier this year and popular family Italian spot Valentino's opened a second location in the sprawling development.
Apollonia follows that trend, although it's not immediately apparent from the name. Owned by the family behind the venerable El Greco in downtown Sarasota, the new restaurant focuses on the same Greek cuisine that has made the family's other restaurant such an enduring success. There are a few telling differences between the two, however, that might cause fans venture out east for a Med meal.
First is the location, which has hosted a few restaurants over the past several years. Like at many of the restaurants in the Cooper Creek plaza, the interior is modern and sharp, with high ceilings and elegant touches that allow Apollonia to easily straddle the line between comfortable family dining and date-night respectability. With Lakewood Ranch just over the interstate, that dichotomy makes serious economic sense.
There's also a long bar down one side of the room that serves wine, beer and some clever cocktails that keep to the Greek theme, like one made with pineapple juice, rum and a surprisingly tasty yoghurt-based liqueur. There's also an outdoor patio that's set back from the sidewalk, cozy enough to compensate a bit for the stark views of the plaza's expansive parking lot.
Apollonia's food also manages to appeal to two seemingly different groups, all at once. Much of the Greek cuisine is hearty and comforting, with portions that offer more than the mid-range price point would account for. Other dishes are refined and elegant, Greek fine-dining. Some are both. And all of it is extremely tasty.
Start with the standards, like flaky spanakopita that's miles ahead of the usual. Instead of the usual densel pockets of puff pastry stuffed with bland green paste so common as catering appetizers, these actually taste like bright spinach and salty, creamy feta, the pastry flaky and light instead of leaden.
Apollonia's homemade hummus is rich, but more about the chick pea at its base, tahini and garlic serving as foils for the nutty bean. Spicy feta dip is a crowd pleaser, the salty cheese blended with hot red-pepper oil, a good foil for the restaurant's sturdy grilled pita. The tzatziki, however, is a revelation.
It's always the little things that can take you by surprise and Apollonia's version of the simple cucumber, yogurt and garlic dip – a staple served with so much Greek food – is the kind of offhanded masterpiece that will have you making a double-take after your first bite. Tart, savory, fresh and powerful, after dredging the final dregs of tzatziki from the plate, you might – like me – ask if the restaurant sells it by the gallon for home consumption.
There are also mussels served in a broth accented cream, garlic and lemon, with a hint of herbaceous anise from a final touch of flaming ouzo; grilled octopus striped with char and dressed in simple olive oil and red wine vinegar; and a rich, almost gelatinous, version of the classic Greek avgolemono soup that combines lemon, egg and chicken. At many Greek restaurants, dolmades – grape leaves stuffed with rice, meat and seasonings – are often sodden and oddly tart. Here, they are solid and fresh, the meat and rice laced with just enough citrus to brighten the dense little packages.
Apollonia's kitchen is adept with fish, like a massive salmon filet that is grilled perfectly, with a crisp, salty crust and a perfect medium rare even at the center of the thick cut. The sautéed spinach on the side is a bit disappointing, but the scattering of briny Kalamata olives and salty feta adds some sharp surprise to occasional bites of the fish.
Considering the incredible tzatziki and tasty pita, it's no surprise that the restaurant's gyro is excellent and the kitchen's deft hand on the grill extends beyond seafood to lamb and pork chops.
For serious comfort food, however, try Apollonia's moussaka or pasticcio. Covered in a delicate béchamel sauce that becomes custard-like when baked, the moussaka's many layers combine in perfect harmony, from tender potatoes to ground beef laced with sweet spices, from soft zucchini and squash to that rich béchamel. Apollonia's pasticcio is more rustic, the same seasoned beef mixed with pasta and sharp feta, then topped by the same ethereal béchamel. Both are fantastic.
Even with a half-dozen restaurants in the same plaza that range from capable to excellent, Apollonia Grill has quickly set itself apart from the herd with a formula that will appeal to everyone from families with young kids to couples celebrating special occasions, not to mention El Greco fans looking for a change of scenery.