1554 N. High St. Columbus, OH 43201 (614) 291-7777
In early 21st century Columbus, it seems like there are more Greek Restaurants per capita than anyplace else using the Latin alphabet. We must like Greek, because none of these places are going out of business, either. Actually, our penchant for the Socratic method of preparing lamb and beef has a long and storied history. Every night for decades before the South Campus Gateway Center™, from witching hour to well after closing time, throngs of this area’s youth would careen toward what was then simply South Campus. It was an unwritten rite of passage to get a sack of one-dollar Gyros from a sliding window outside the Apollo and eat them while stumbling back to the dorms. Some say the joint next door to the Apollo had better Gyros, but they didn’t have live music. Either way, those particular latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates are as important to the grand narrative of Central Ohio cuisine as the fried bologna sandwich.
There is no better way to carry that narrative into the twenty-first century and beyond than the addition of The Happy Greek to the roster at South Campus Gateway Center™. Just as the sleek concrete, metal and glass structure that is the Gateway™ has replaced the crumbling facades and dangerous staircases of the worn-out, iconic South Campus, so has The Happy Greek supplanted the hastily-assembled, foil-wrapped Gyro with beautiful plates of Pastisio and Dolmadakia.
The Happy Greek himself is Mohammed Hassan, who, along with his wife Gigi has been purveying flaming cheese and falafel in the Short North since 2003. Mohammed began life as an Egyptian, worked his way through the ranks at most of the Greek restaurants in London, came to the States, and through fate or bureaucratic mix up became the Happy Greek. He injects a Pan-Mediterranean and flair into everything he prepares. Somehow, his innate happiness finds its way in there as well. It’s like what peace in the Middle East would taste like.
A two-story dining room adorned with tiled columns and an entire wall’s worth of vibrantly colored murals gives the new Happy Greek a spacious feel; the large tables provide an ample stage for what immediately feels like it is going to be a stellar meal. Before the first check hits anything resembling a chair, someone needs to order two Happy Greek Combination Appetizers. That is the only way to get all six of the remarkable spreads that Mohammed offers as tantalizing precursors. The warm pita wedges make great finger food, as they are dunked enthusiastically into Kopanisti (feta with roasted red pepper and spice), Melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant dip), Skordalia (potato-garlic spread), Hummus, Tzatziki (yogurt-cucumber dip) and Spinach and Feta dip. Scintillating conversation and a bright, crisp Greek white wine create a casual and comfortable atmosphere that is perfect for waiting for the rest of your party to arrive.
Once they do, try that Greek white with some flaming cheese. It’s called Saganaki and it is tremendously creamy and chewy with a slight bite provided by sour lemon juice and the residuals left behind by flaming brandy. The Marithes (fried smelts) and Spanakopita (spinach and feta stuffed filo pastry) likewise should be eaten while there is still some white left. The crispy fish are complimented by the light acid, which almost effervescently cleanses a palate of the creamy residuals left behind by the feta in the Spanakopita. Some remaining incidental feta won’t interfere with the Sautéed Calimari with tomatoes, but a red wine will be much more appropriate. Again, try something Greek. Mohammed has familiar varietals, like Cabernet, from Greece, in addition to the more indigenous Greek grapes. A bottle of each will likely make it all the way through the entrees, depending upon how many friends are involved.
Mediterranean spice is by nature red-friendly. So, don’t worry if one of the fish or seafood dishes catches your eye as the likely candidate for the meal’s main event. Ditto for the vegetarian selections. In fact, at least one seafood and vegetarian dish ought to be included in the lineup. The Shrimp and Scallops Olympus offers two different sea creatures with tomatoes, sweet peppers and robust herbs. It is very shareable, which makes things easy, because whoever ordered it is going to want to swap some for at least one of the crispy hot balls from whoever ordered the Falafel. The Vegetarian Combo Platter comes with falafel, grape leaves, a salad and a couple of dips. If no one orders one for themselves, it would be a wise move to get one for the table.
Kebobs certainly must make an appearance for any Happy Greek experience to be full, and Mohammed offers them in chicken, beef, lamb and Kefthedes, which is a spiced mixture of ground lamb and beef. Likewise, the savvy diner (and that is now you) will make every attempt to get an order of Pastisio on the table. Layers of seasoned ground beef rest beneath additional layers of noodles, béchamel and aged cheese. It is how the lasagna tradition evolved when the invading Ottomans returned from their conquest of what would become Italy.
It would truly be laborious tedium to list everything one should try at the Happy Greek, since there is such a wide selection thereof, although it would be an unmatched pleasure to be able to eat it all. Suffice it to say that whether the chicken is Athena or Lemonato, the Cous Cous is topped with stewed lamb or beef, or it’s a grape leaf, tomato or bell pepper that is stuffed, there will be more items left untried than tried, but that is something to look forward to for future visits.
One thing not to do at Happy Greek is to try to do too much at once. It would be a shame to attempt to cram a little Mousaka in on top of everything else, especially if it meant there was no room for at least one piece of Walnut, Pistachio or Chocolate-Almond Baklava or Galaktobouriko custard.