An Athenian temple of sorts has popped up in Providence. Head here to bask in Greek gastronomic blessings — the brine of plump, organic olives, the fruity minerality of Assyrtiko wine, and the creamy tang of the country’s signature yogurt.
Called Yoleni’s, the market-cafe-restaurant is the brand’s second location, and the first in the United States. Not surprisingly, the “experience store” is often referred to as a “Greek Eataly.” “Yoleni’s is not quite as large, but I think it’s a fair comparison,” says Alexandra Georgiou, who opened it with her husband, Alexander Philippides, in May. “We get that a lot.”
Located in the historic Tilden-Thurber jewelry company building in downtown Providence, it’s a scaled down version of the original flagship store, in Athens. Philippides’s nephew, Giannis Philippides, is the primary owner of the European location.
In Providence, the couple spent millions renovating the new market’s home, most recently an antique furniture showroom, to its current, culinary-themed glory. Visitors can watch cooks rolling out pita dough in an open kitchen; sip a morning frappé under impressively high, two-story ceilings; and grab dried bananas and apricots out of a gleaming glass case with a neon sign reading “Nuts and Dried Fruit Corner.”
With nearly a thousand different items, the market portion of the culinary complex skews gourmet. It includes things from every corner of the country, from raw “mountain blossom” honey from the Peloponnese to sun-dried tomato spread from Attica, and even organic amaranth and flaxseed cereal from Thessaloniki. Sampling is encouraged, and small tasting spoons are set out among the artfully arranged groceries.
Yoleni’s started in Greece in 2007 as an online-only shop, but most of its original investors are no longer involved. Georgiou and Philippides run the US arm of the online store and its distribution center out of the lower level of their Providence building, shipping goods all over the country. Call to inquire about an order, and you’ll probably end up speaking with Georgiou herself; the main phone line is currently routed to her personal smartphone.
“That was Rafael from Florida ordering olive oils and honey,” she says after taking one of many calls lighting up her phone on a recent afternoon.
Already discussing the possibility of opening other US locations, the couple chose to debut the concept in Rhode Island because start-up costs were more affordable than they would have been in a larger city, and Providence has a “reputation as a food town.” They also have ties to the area, as Georgiou is originally from Newport.
Georgiou and Philippides, who met in Greece, where he grew up, also say they saw a “window of opportunity” to export new aspects of the cuisine, including health foods and medicinal herbs, to the United States. “People are more concerned about what they are eating now, and the Mediterranean diet represented longevity and wellness,” she says.
The opening is part of a larger wave of interest in Greek-inspired cuisine in New England. In the Boston area alone, quick-service restaurants Gre.Co (from the owners of Committee in the Seaport), Saloniki, the Simple Greek, and Zo Greek have all launched, or debuted new locations, in the last few years. In the South End, two-year-old Kava Neo-Taverna does a bustling business selling Hellenistic favorites such as zucchini chips and loukaniko. And just down the street from Yoleni’s, in Providence, another new Greek restaurant, Kleos, opened last year.
During the day, Yoleni’s has a fast-casual component that includes breakfast and lunch items such as eggs with a Greek-style guacamole, moussaka-stuffed pitas, plus a “yogurt bar” with housemade sheep’s milk yogurt and an array of toppings. While executive chef George Panagiotis uses many imported ingredients, including the country’s prized olive oil as the main fat for cooking and flavoring, he sources perishable foods, including produce, eggs, and milk, locally.
Come dinnertime, the vibe moves more upscale, with the opening of a full-service restaurant called Topos by Yoleni’s. The menu includes such dishes as oven-baked lamb with roasted potatoes; the stuffed eggplant preparation known as papoutsakia; and, for dessert, the sweet semolina cake ravani. A range of Greek wines is available for pairing.
One thing that may set Yoleni’s apart in an increasingly crowded market: Its owners are making a point to stay true to traditional cuisine, rather than altering the menu for the American palate. Less than a year ago, in fact, Panagiotis was cooking much of the same food at the Yoleni’s in Athens, where he’s from.
And yet, as much as he’s trying to capture his culture, the chef says he can’t always replicate a dish to the letter. “It’s a little bit harder for me to reach the flavors I have in Greece, and what I want to show people,” he says. “I’m still getting used to the ingredients here.”
So some minor adjustments are necessary. For example, even local, farm-grown tomatoes and cucumbers do not have the same bold taste that they do in his home country, he says. So a salad might require a bit more seasoning. On the other hand, he recently delighted in topping a dish with vibrantly hued watermelon radishes, which are not available in Athens, he says.
For the most part, Panagiotis adds, he’s been pleasantly surprised by Americans’ fluency in Hellenistic cuisine. “I was impressed when I learned that people here knew about kalamata olives,” he says. “Americans tend to know that our food is clean and fresh, and we use a lot of olive oil. This makes me happy. I thought that outside of Greece, people only knew feta cheese.” And that’s certainly no longer the case.
292 Westminster St., Providence. 401-500-1127, www.yolenis.com