The twin indigo awnings wrapping the brick corner of 10th and Spruce look like floating plunge pools. Residing beneath: Kanella. With waiters in white linen, tart lemonade squeezed by hand--"We're masochists here," says chef/owner Konstantinos Pitsillides--and a menu inspired by the balmy island nation of Pitsillides' native Cyprus, you won't find a restaurant that quenches quite like it.
Potted rosemary and mint suck up sun alongside lemon and fig saplings in the oversized windows. Kanella feels like a hidden gem you'd accidentally happen upon--and later brag about to your foodie friends.
You'd say how the stone floors, walnut tables and sapphire pillows reminded you of daytripping to Crete or Capri during the semester you studied abroad. You'd tell them "kanella" is Greek for "cinnamon" and recount the fragrant sticks bundled into a cross over the front archway. You'd recall the well-worn copper pots hanging on the exposed brick wall and maybe chuckle (or cringe) when you mention how one waiter invokes Wikipedia when describing barramundi. But mostly you'd talk about the cooking--of its quiet confidence and fresh, balanced flavors.
Pitsillides, former chef of Meze in Bella Vista, is not afraid to bring it with some pig trotters or sieftalia--spiced pork sausages cased in caul fat, the lacy membrane that contains an animal's internal organs. Or how about tarama, carp roe whipped into a silky, surprisingly delicate dip served with grilled pita? With tangy tzatziki and fragrant carrot-and-cardamom, it's one of a trio of dips that change according to Pitsillides' whims.
The Dips of the Day make a smooth intro to Cypriot cuisine, a mosaic of centuries of invasion. The pork terrine--tender shreds of head and cheek meat suspended in its natural gelatin--hints at the island's 300-year French occupation. Baby sepia, succulent cephalopods Pitsillides grills over onion, rosemary and hot coals, are found in the waterside markets of Venice, another conqueror.
Sides are well chosen for their balancing properties. Baby vegetables pickled with ras el hanout slice effortlessly through the Frenchy decadence of the terrine. Rustic pea-studded ratatouille lends body to a moist, perfectly seared filet of mackerel. Cilantro-and-caper leaf salad becomes a verdant foil for the loukanigo spitisio, a pork-and-veal sausage packing the tannic wallop of a red wine.
Crisp-skinned free-range quail arrives over a whole baby eggplant that Pitsillides roasts with tomatoes, garlic and ras el hanout till the aubergine skin peels away like tissue paper. It's delicious, which the waiters confirm in hushed reverential tones, priests of a secret Cypriot brotherhood saying their prayers instead of reading you specials. (Pronoun abuse is also rampant among the staff: "Are we enjoying everything? Would we like coffee?" The whole routine comes off a bit too Le Becky for such a breezy place.)
On the positive side, a water glass never runs dry; a dirty plate never sits. The waiters also really know the menu, a boon when dealing with exotica like pasturma, Armenian air-dried beef speckling airy dauphinoise potatoes; house-made Cypriot bread; and siamali, a moist semolina-and-walnut cake soaked in orange and rose syrups and topped with a spoonful of tangy Greek yogurt that Pitsillides cultures in-house.
Occasionally the flavors get heavy-handed. Stuffed with mint and haloumi and swimming in a sauce of the same, the half-moon Cypriot ravioli start out as interesting but quickly become too challenging to enjoy. Mahalepi, a pistachio-dusted custard finished tableside with rose syrup, can be overwhelmingly perfumey if you get a waiter as heavy-handed as mine.
Better to stick with the flan, a layer of dreamy semolina custard studded with rose water-soaked raisins, covered with paper-thin apple slices and glazed with apricot jam glaze. The cinnamon ice cream is like tasting the spice for the first time: intense, aromatic, as amplified as the leftover milk in a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Pitsillides is good at this, weaving meals of deft little surprises. It makes Kanella one of the year's most refreshing debuts.