Kanella Grill: Flavors, freshness, and value at a no-fuss Cypriot kebab house

The corner at 10th and Spruce Streets, it seems, was destined to rekindle its kebab magic. But even Konstantinos Pitsillides, a man so intense he's widely known among colleagues for his "Cypriot death stare," acknowledges he hemmed and hawed over what do with the vacant space for well more than a year.

"I'm as flaky as yufka," he conceded, referring to Cypriot phyllo dough.

Of course, Pitsillides also wrung his hands with worry when he vacated this space in 2015 and moved Kanella, his hit BYOB, to a fancier, liquor-licensed restaurant in Queen Village. That project, Kanella South, has been a resounding success with more resources to explore the full culinary tradition of his Cypriot heritage.

But Pitsillides knew he had left behind a devoted clientele in Washington Square West. So when he and his partner, Caroline Christian, finally decided, after settling some personal issues, to reclaim that simple corner space trimmed with sky-blue awnings, white stucco arches, exposed brick walls, and country tables covered in blue checked tablecloths, they gave those locals the ultimate neighborhood concept: a Cypriot kebab house.

Casual, cheap, and cheerful, as Pitsillides says, the kebab house is a fixture in Cypriot villages, with a rollicking ambience akin to a Greek taverna and a grill-centric menu built on vividly spiced meats and fresh salads. Many of these specialties, from the sweet-spiced lamb kofta skewers to the grilled sheep's milk halloumi cheese and coriander-laced meats, were at the core of the original Kanella's menu.

But as Pitsillides' cuisine takes on more refinements at Kanella South, reviving the minimalist confines of Kanella Grill to refocus a spotlight more squarely on Cyprus' street-food standards has resulted in one of the more compelling new dining bargains in town, with an all-day menu whose platters top out at $16. A three-course mezze feast option goes for $30 per person at dinner and requires a minimum of four diners. It was added after my last dinner, but it essentially brings a taste of most of the menu - plus sometimes a whole grilled fish wrapped in leeks. I want that. I'll just need to remember to bring enough cash, because credit's not accepted, an inconvenience that's a small nuisance.

But a BYOB policy adds to the value factor. Laid-back but friendly service and a seemingly simple menu - pick your skewer for a pita sandwich or platter with houmous and salads - gives the impression of a no-fuss concept.

But there's no compromise from head chef Dominic Santora, 25, a Kanella vet, when it comes to crafting distinct flavors with each dish, many of which have a kind of shut-your-eyes effect when you take that first bite.

Santora's gyro is a perfect example. The savory power of the meat's unique marinade is already deep enough - the vertical rotisserie stack of layered pork and beef seasoned with oregano, garlic, coriander, and the unexpected piquant zing of anchovy. But once it's spin-roasted to a savory crisp, it's shaved thin and then rolled up inside pita with a chopped cucumber-tomato salad, yogurt sauce, and, yes, a fistful of hot french fries, and the whole thing rises to another dimension. The hot meat crackles against the cool crunch of veggies, the tartness of the tzanziki yogurt drizzle, the hot crust and soft puff of the freshly fried potatoes.

The shawarma is a convincingly different look altogether, a whole bone-in leg of lamb roasted in an aromatic rub of cumin, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and herbs that gets sliced down into a pile of incredibly tender, juicy meat best served on a platter. With a thick smear of lemony houmous on the side, a pile of "jeweled" rice studded with raisins and capers, a spicy chopped-tomato salad, plus Cypriot pickles and a fresh pita, these platters make for a complete meal. That's a level of quality, flavors, and freshness difficult to find for $15 or less, which explains the high rating. That, and the fact I could happily eat there every week.

The other meats were delicious, too, including the kofta special, whose ground lamb is tinted with exotic ras el hanout spice and lightly sweetened with apricots and pistachios. It's served over a creamy house-strained labne cheese made from fermented kefir dusted with earthy za'atar and sumac. The siftalia, the national sausage of Cyprus, brought a cinnamon- and mint-scented blend of ground pork and veal wrapped inside a sheer and grill-crisped casing.

Thick chunks of a grilled mako shark special brought a satisfying fish counterpart to the meats. The juicy chicken, intensely flavored from a marinade in whole branches of Greek oregano and lemon zest, was also delicious - although one skewer that was slightly undercooked, and swiftly replaced, was one of Kanella Grill's few mistakes. An oversalting of our first Greek salad was another.

But, for the most part, this kitchen hit a perfect midpoint of retaining juiciness from its grilled meats without overcooking, and fully seasoning its dishes without going overboard.

And the prominence of vegetables, both in featured dishes and sides, was a reflection of the freshness and rustic Mediterranean spirit characteristic of Cypriot cooking.

Kanella's vegetarian sandwich is every bit as great and complex as the gyro, with char-grilled slabs of salty, stretchy, minted halloumi cheese layered inside a pita with a cold salad of herb-blasted and juicy tomatoes. The house falafel platter is now my second favorite in town (after Mama's Vegetarian), the crisp round chickpea fritters greened with cilantro and shaded with coriander, cumin, and fennel.

I also loved the spinach pie, whose stuffing was sweetened with melted leeks, dill, and nutmeg, plus creamy crumbles of Bulgarian feta. The refreshing tabuleh sparked with mint and pomegranate, and fingerling potato salad tart with red wine vinegar and toasted coriander seeds were also spot-on. The "Greek chips" (one of Pitsillides' few nods to Cyprus' neighbor) were also outstanding examples of the wedge fry genre, and a tempting alternative to the rice.

Even several of the nonalcoholic Cypriot drinks pay an appealing homage to the produce department, from the thick apricot juice scented with cinnamon (a.k.a. "kanella"), to cucumber and mint juice blended with yogurt that's essentially a light, tart smoothie. The traditional soumada made of toasted and ground almonds, meanwhile, may be sweet enough for dessert.

But, of course, Kanella Grill serves two classic sweets that really shouldn't be missed: one of the most buttery baklavas anywhere, its flaky layers stuffed with pistachios and walnuts, then soaked in orange syrup; and a galatopoureko that wraps phyllo around a thick semolina custard rich with vanilla.

If you've spent much time over the years eating at 10th and Spruce, those desserts will be familiar. But my guess is that, because Pitsillides revived that corner as Kanella Grill, they taste sweeter than ever. Welcome back.

Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Perla near East Passyunk Avenue.

claban@phillynews.com


Kanella Grill

1001 Spruce St., Philadelphia; 267-928-2085.

The aroma of sizzling Mediterranean meats on skewers has returned to the corner of 10th and Spruce, where Konstantinos Pitsillides, a year after moving his more upscale original Kanella to Queen Village, has installed a traditional Cypriot kebab house. The pick-your-skewer for a sandwich or platter concept and the BYOB space are minimalist. The service is relaxed. The cash-only policy is also a pain. But the deeply wrought flavors are so good and evocative of another place, and the prices are so fair, especially with the three-course family-style mezze option, that this casual newcomer compensates for its lack of frills by becoming one of Philadelphia's great dining values.

MENU HIGHLIGHTS

Siftalia kebab; chicken kebab; halloumi pita; gyro pita; lamb shawarma platter; lamb kofta special; mako kebab special; falafel; spanikopita; Cyprus potato salad; Greek chips with tzanziki; baklava; galatopoureko. Entrees, $8-$16. Three-course mezze sharing menu, $30 per person (minimum four diners).

DRINKS

BYOB. A good Greek wine would be the most regionally appropriate choice, especially a red Xinomavro well-suited to the meat-centric menu. There are a number of fascinating nonalcoholic choices with Cypriot flavors, too, from the cinnamon-spiced apricot juice to a tart lemonada, sweet almond soumada, and minted cucumber juice that's also milky with yogurt.

WEEKEND NOISE

The minimally decorated taverna space can get to a boisterous 89 decibels when the tables are full. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less).

IF YOU GO

Entire menu 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.

Reservations not available.

Dining room is wheelchair accessible, but bathrooms are not.

Street parking only.