The devil is in the details, but heaven can be too. At Melina, the fine dining modern Greek restaurant that the owners of CAVA Group Inc. opened in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development in November, they get the details just right even before a morsel of food hits the table. The glass for an Old Fashioned gets a theatrical blast of smoke tableside as a server blowtorches elder wood pellets and cloves above it. He pours the cocktail (Basil Hayden bourbon plus a homemade syrup of thyme, pomegranate juice, brandy and orange bitters) into the haze from a decanter and places it in front of me. Peering down, I notice an orange peel garnish has been trimmed with pinking shears to create zigzag edges. That’s detail. The Honey Bee Blossom cocktail, a ballet-slipper-pink, vodka-based elixir with notes of cranberry, vanilla and peach, is topped with egg white foam, sprinkled with bee pollen and crowned with an edible marigold. The stem of its elegant coupe is a cut-glass sphere.
“We always wanted to do another Greek restaurant that’s different from what we did in the past,” says Dimitri Moshovitis, who owns Melina with Ike Grigoropoulos and Ted Xenohristos. The Montgomery County natives and residents also own three locations of CAVA Mezze restaurant, 165 outlets of its fast-casual iteration CAVA, and Julii, a French Mediterranean restaurant steps from Melina that opened in 2018.
Melina is Moshovitis’ baby—it’s named after his 12-year-old daughter. The 3,600-square-foot space seats 80, plus 10 at the bar and 40 outside. A front glass garage door, open in good weather, adds another 10 seats to the bar from the outside. The elegant, subdued decor suggests Greece in subtle ways: a Greek key design on beige upholstery, an arch motif on high walls that signals that country’s ubiquitous domed churches, blue subway tile in the open kitchen, and lots of greenery, including a dramatically underlit olive tree (an excellent fake) in the middle of the space.
Moshovitis says the high-style Greek food concept is unlike anything else in the area, so finding just the right person to helm the kitchen was critical. He discovered Aris Tsekouras through Instagram. The chef, who was born in the U.S. but grew up and went to culinary school in Greece, returned to the States to be the chef at Vasili’s Kitchen in Gaithersburg. He worked there from 2016 to June 2020, when he started his own online baking business, Wheat Microbakery (now closed). Moshovitis was looking for something local to include in Easter and Rosh Hashanah takeout dinners that his group was offering and tried Tsekouras’ breads. “He delivered the first batch and they were amazing. I knew this was the chef for my project,” says Moshovitis, who refers to himself as Melina’s co-chef.
That artisan bread is $8 at Melina, reflective of the effort and time that go into making the loaves. Available in rotation, the offerings include carob walnut sourdough, semolina sesame sourdough, sesame-coated lagana (like focaccia) and olive sourdough. Two kinds come with an order, accompanied by a fish roe spread topped with salmon eggs and parsley oil.
The hallmark of Tsekouras’ dishes—all served on chic, rustic stoneware from Robert Gordon Australia—is the use of multiple, often intricately prepared components. Tsekouras’ beautifully presented offerings cohere in a harmony of acid, fat, salt, sweetness and texture. For one mezze (appetizer), slices of cured hamachi (yellowtail) in citrus dressing are nestled aside a fluff of smoked fish roe cream, flanked with orange, blood orange and lime segments and garnished with mint, red-veined sorrel leaves and dehydrated grape leaf powder. Another starter, a roasted then grilled octopus tentacle with caramelized shallots and yellow fava bean puree, is enhanced with a verdant emulsion of parsley juice, olive oil and the octopus’s roasting juices. Garnishes—fried onions, fried capers and dots of gel made with balsamic vinegar and star anise—add extra bursts of flavor.
Even a green salad sports a tux at Melina. Tsekouras spreads quartered hearts of Little Gem lettuce (a cross between romaine and butter lettuce) with a pesto of pistachios, dill, mint and basil, drizzles them with lemon vinaigrette, then pipes whipped, smoked manouri cheese (a Greek semi-soft goat or sheep’s milk cheese) around them and finishes the plate with toasted panko and pickled mustard seeds.
A square of seared cod resting on a bed of roasted and pickled beets and a Greek puree called skordalia is the centerpiece of a stunning entree. “In Greece, skordalia is either made with potatoes and garlic…or with bread and garlic and nuts,” Tsekouras says. “We use bread, almonds, black garlic, white balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and olive oil, so it has a sweet, nutty flavor.” The fish is ringed with potato cream sauce, dill oil and beet juice, topped with a black, lacy cracker (its batter is made with food-grade activated charcoal) and finished with a sprinkle of charred onion powder. The treatment renders the fish revelatory.
For a showpiece, Tsekouras brines lamb neck for a day and cooks it sous vide until tender. The meat, pulled from the bones, is then baked with red peppers, cherry tomatoes and cubes of kefalograviera cheese (a hard sheep’s milk cheese) in a casserole that’s lined and covered with crumpled parchment. The server unfurls the parchment tableside, revealing oregano-perfumed redolence. Grilled sourdough pita bread, tzatziki and pickled onion salad accompany the dish (so you can make your own little sandwiches), plus crispy potato skins that, on my next visit, I plan to order as a snack to go with cocktails.
Other dishes at Melina excel, including mushroom souvlaki, grilled rockfish with chickpea stew, and cheese pie in a delectably flaky crust. If I must find a misstep, it’s a mezze of roasted beets in yogurt with a gritty carob topping.
Have the doughnuts for two for dessert, eight airy, sugar-coated orbs served with thyme-, rosemary- and cinnamon-infused honey, vanilla ice cream, toasted walnuts and, poured tableside, little glasses of chocolate milk laced with cinnamon, star anise, orange and vanilla. If you’re too full, have them on your next visit to Melina, because there surely will be one.
905 Rose Ave. (Pike & Rose), North Bethesda, 301-818-9090, melinagreek.com
Overall rating: A
Favorite dishes: The Honey Bee Blossom cocktail; charred baby gem salad with pistachio pesto; cured hamachi; cod skordalia; slow-roasted lamb neck kleftiko; Greek doughnuts for two.
Prices: Appetizers: $12 to $20; Entrees: $20 to $42; Desserts: $13 (doughnuts for two: $16).
Libations: The beverage list is concise and thoughtfully conceived. There are 21 wines, most in the $45 to $65 per bottle range. All but three are Greek, highlighting that country’s grapes, such as Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, Agiorgitiko and Malagousia. Sixteen of them are offered by the glass ($12 to $16). Eight craft cocktails ($11 to $16), such as the Bouboulina (mezcal, roasted beet juice, lime, honey and fennel), are creative and served in exquisite glassware. One is a gin and tonic made with nonalcoholic gin. There are eight bottled beers ($5 to $9), two of them Greek.
Service: Gracious, knowledgeable and efficient.
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.