Review: Brookline’s Bar Vlaha Gives a Novel European Cuisine a Vivid Local Debut
With a focus on Greece’s mountainous north, the Balkan-inspired menu begs to be shared with big groups—if you can all score a table.
My Greek-American pal Ted called me a few months back, excited to see if I’d been to the new Brookline restaurant Bar Vlaha. No, I told him, but the same team is behind Krasi in the Back Bay, a Greek restaurant I like. “Yes, but this one also does Vlach food!” Ted enthused. I did not know what to say to that. “Two of my grandparents were Vlachs!” Ted added. I finally replied that I didn’t know that. I had never heard of Vlach as either an ethnicity or a cuisine.
Greek-American food, I knew. In my earlier days, I knew it in the form of sub-shop souvlaki wraps, pan pizzas cooked in olive oil, and loukaniko sausage with diner breakfasts. More-traditional Greek restaurants became a part of my vernacular, and Boston’s, in the ’90s—hello, scratch-made moussaka and real pork gyros—but they weren’t exactly destination dining. Then came the recent wave of Greek fine dining exemplified by the aforementioned Krasi, Kava in the South End, and Committee in the Seaport. These places serve modern Greek fare in rooms that evoke the sun-splashed glamour of a Santorini resort, not the plebeian clamor of a greasy spoon. They have swish wine lists, grilled octopus and whole sea bass, and Boston dudes who actually dress up to impress their dates. That’s a long way from cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger.
But I still did not know about Vlach. As Ted explained, his grandfolks hailed from Greece’s mountainous northern interior as part of an ethnic minority with roots in the Balkans, its own Romance language, and nomadic herding as its main livelihood. Vlachs make goat and sheep cheeses and comb the forests for wild mushrooms and wild boar. Far from the ocean, they take freshwater fish and crustaceans from the rivers and lakes. They also cook outdoors with a wood fire, roasting meats on spits, doing slow clay-pot braises, and baking “village-style” sourdough bread.
That gave me some bearings, so I scored a reservation—which can take some work here, as it’s been routinely packed since its March opening—and took a few friends. We started with wine and cheese: a bottle of 2022 Ktima Gerovassiliou Alpha Estate Malagousia ($80), one of those easy-drinking “porch pounders” from Macedonia, and some quality cheeses, like the agreeably salty/nutty Kefalograviera and smoky Boukovela ($6 each) with spiced almonds and chunky house-made jams of kumquats or grapes. Horiatiko psomi ($6), a dense, rustic bread, came with tangy, pungent sheep butter and went great with dips like kopanisti ($6) of whipped feta and roasted peppers; taramosalata ($6) made with carp roe, quite salty and a little fishy; and melitzanosalata ($6), beautifully smoky charred eggplant nicely balanced with the zip of lemon. So far, so familiar.
We were on less certain ground with “pita”—not flatbread here but slices of pretty, savory pies such as aradopita ($10), cornmeal-crusted and filled with feta-dotted boiled greens, and manitaropita ($14), with a flaky phyllo crust and a delectable filling of wild mushrooms scented with fresh thyme. Horiatiki salata ($10), the canonical lettuce-free “Greek salad,” impressed with early-summer tomatoes, great feta, and a perfectly simple dressing of olive oil and oregano. Pantzaria ($10) refreshed the tired beet-salad formula with braised beet tops, a bracingly acidic dressing, and weird-but-good allspice. Still, Vlach cuisine wasn’t looking strikingly different from lowland Greek.
Executive chef Kathryn McCoart’s vegetable dishes finally took us into some unfamiliar territory. Case in point: the kounoupidi ($14), roasted cauliflower punched up with mustard marinade and larded with currants and pine nuts. Manitaria ($16), fried oyster mushrooms, gave us a “whoa” moment with its fragrant interior, delicately crisp coating, and vivid parsley sauce; one bite, and we understood why every table in the place seemed to have one.
Then the novel stunners really started arriving. Karavides ($28) was a soupy pasta dish of orzo flecked abundantly with crayfish in an aromatic seafood stock showcasing fennel, ouzo, and lemon. Moschari me damaskina ($30) featured fatty, tender beef cheek in a sweet, cinnamon-scented sauce of prunes, fortified wine, and molasses, given chew and heft with trahana, an ancient grain product made from wheat and fermented milk. Pestrofa ($32), baked whole rainbow trout, wowed us with its skillful boning, pretty plating, and elegant sauce of herbs and capers.
From there, the distinctive melody of Vlach cuisine, with its forest and freshwater bounty, echoes of Balkan Europe, and delicate textures and layered flavors via long, slow cooking, came into full view. Few of us had sampled snails beyond garlicky French escargot, but saligaria ($14) floored us with tender gastropods in a luscious reduction of red wine, tomatoes, and rosemary, with pearl onions providing crunch and bite. Kokkinisto ($24), stewed chicken leg in a slightly sweet, concentrated tomato sauce, featured the comforting additions of cinnamon and flat egg noodles chopped into squares, almost like an Ashkenazi Jewish kugel.
Another mind-bender, arni stin souvla ($32), evoked a picture of Vlach shepherds cooking outdoors: Spit-roasted over charcoal, the slow-roasted lamb leg was cooked through yet still tender. We gilded the lily further with patates ($12), potatoes roasted in lamb fat with lemon and fresh oregano.
Bar manager Alexander Tzovaras has put together a kicky cocktail list with tongue-in-cheek creations like the Olympic Cleanse ($10), a no-alcohol highball with healthy juice-bar flavors of fresh ginger, beets, lemon, and soda, and the Pump the Briki ($16), an over-the-top Greek spin on the ubiquitous espresso martini, here done with vodka, espresso and walnut liqueurs, Greek coffee, fortified wine, grape syrup, and a topper of foam made from sweetened instant coffee. Food-friendlier options are found on the wine list, which features 40 mostly Greek bottles (starting at $50) and a dozen available by the glass (starting at $14). We particularly liked the 2019 Dougos Rapsani Old Vines ($75), a big, hearty, oak-smoothed red from Thessaly that matched winningly with McCoart’s lusty roasts and stews.
As for the service, the restaurant has somehow managed to field a polished, well-coordinated front-of-house staff amid a crippling industry labor shortage. These servers deftly work a space that has multiple moods: a sidewalk patio overlooking bustling Washington Square, a long table facing the flame-filled open kitchen, a cozy bar that suits couples’ dining, and some private-feeling corner nooks. The décor evokes a welcoming Greek summer home, all white paint and neutral hardwoods with splashes of color in the tapestried seat cushions.
But what lingers in the mind and on the palate is the vividness of this food: the passel of plates that superficially appear simple but pack a wallop of varied and deep flavors. While singles and pairs can usually walk in for a bar seat without a long wait, Bar Vlaha’s menu begs to be shared with big groups of friends. Just be prepared to plan weeks ahead to book a table for them. Bostonians may be just getting to know the convivial joys of Vlach cuisine, but they are clearly eager to dive in.
1653 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-906-8556, barvlaha.com.
Manitaropita (wild mushroom phyllo pie), manitaria (fried oyster mushrooms), karavides (oyster with crayfish), moschari me damaskina (beef cheek), pestrofa (baked whole rainbow trou), arni stin souvla (spit-roasted lamb leg)
★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★ Generally Excellent | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No Stars) Poor
First published in the print edition of the August 2023 issue with the headline, “Vlach Around the Block.”