BY CHRISTINE BARBOUR
Perhaps you noticed that Topo’s 403, the upscale Greek restaurant in the historic Topolgus Building on North Walnut, was closed earlier this year. “Pity,” you may have thought, while recognizing that the shelf life of restaurants is oftentimes shorter than that of pasteurized milk.
But Topo’s was not gone, it was just regrouping, and behind the shuttered façade was a storm of activity. Due to unplanned staff changes, Stephanie Topolgus, manager and creative director, decided it was time to revamp the place. And while it may look largely the same, several months later the view from the plate is altogether new.
Most notably, Topo’s has scored a coup in the chef department. Anthony Gabriele, who had worked in the kitchen at Feast Bakery Cafe almost since it opened until he left his post as sous chef last summer, is at the helm. Feast-lovers will recognize the affection for the Mediterranean palate, the lavish and skilled use of fresh herbs, and the astonishing bright flavors that leave you sated — but not stunned — with rich food.
Gabriele, a hometown boy who trained in Portland, Oregon, says that his approach to food is to showcase vegetables, fresh ingredients (he works closely with several farmers), and simple preparations. The menu bears that out.
The fresh herb platter will change the way you think about dinner. Exactly what it says it is, the appetizer is a plate full of seasonal whole herbs — mint, oregano, and green garlic in spring — marinated feta, candied walnuts, radishes, and some drop-dead wonderful house-made pita. You eat it by ripping off some bread, scooping some cheese and olive oil, stuffing in some herbs and a nut or two, and popping the whole thing into your mouth. Fresh, fragrant, explosive flavors ensue.
Equally fun are the 403 pickled fries. Yes, pickled. Gabriele blanches the fries in hot oil to partially cook them, then lets them rest in a briny bath until it is time to dry, fry, and serve them. The flavor is indeed a little tangy, but they are also among the best darn fries you will ever eat, served with lemon aioli for extra richness and zing.
Gabriele knows exactly what he is doing. The grilled octopus is slowly cooked in olive oil, then marinated and grilled until it is full of deep-sea flavor with accents of lemon, oregano, and shallots. The steelhead trout filet wrapped in grape leaves and grilled is lovely on a bed of herby basmati rice, and the vegetarian souvlaki is just killer good — grilled eggplant, mushrooms, and zucchini with spicy muhammara (a walnut spread) and charmoula (an herby sauce). The house-made pappardelle with grilled eggplant, chilies, lemon, and basil is also wonderful, and the lamb-stuffed prunes are sweet, lamby, and spicy.
Although Topo’s has reopened, the menu revamping has not come to an end. This summer will see local lamb roasting on a spit on the patio and family-style comfort meals on Sunday evenings.
The new Topo’s has an updated cocktail list that makes use of the same flavors as the menu and an Italian pastry chef who turns out delights such as orange-scented olive oil cake and lemon panna cotta.
So, if you think you know Topo’s, think again. You have a treat in store.