“This is going to rock,” said the Observer’s Jim Manheim when he found out that KouZina has a large back patio. For him, a stellar way to spend an evening has long been a gyro at the Royal Oak KouZina, “preferably eaten outside,” followed by a movie at the Main Art Theatre across the street. Now he can do the same thing before a show at the Ark.
Bobby Laskaris opened his second KouZina Greek Street Food in the old Middle Kingdom in May, and it comes with a lot of street cred. Laskaris’s father, Panagiotis, worked at Detroit’s Greektown restaurants in their heyday: he cooked at Hellas, Grecian Gardens, and the International, and was for a time head chef at the pre-strip club version of the Bouzouki Lounge. He also owned a few restaurants outside Greektown: Athenian Cuisine in Southfield and Olympian Cafe in Highland Park. “But when we went out to eat, we’d go to Joe Muer’s, the Caucus Club, the Chop House,” he says, naming some of Detroit’s swankiest spots from the 1960s and 1970s. “My dad says you should always have a good pair of shoes and eat well.”
He pulled his father out of retirement to open Royal Oak’s KouZina in 2012, and it was an instant hit, serving a stripped-down menu of casual, updated, fresh Greek food in a scrubbed, modern setting. He laments that no one will know what it took to get that same rustic, raw look at the Middle Kingdom, whose walls were crumbling. The masonry has been tuck-pointed and painted a calming slate blue, the floor is polished concrete, and the butcher block and I-beam furniture was made at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. It’s a minimalist look that people mistake for “easy,” but Bobby pulls out his phone and shows pictures from six months ago that look like an earthquake struck the spot. The rehab also included excavating the basement for more kitchen space and installing the quiet, shaded patio that seats fifty out back.
Cherub-faced Bobby, forty-four, isn’t a chef himself, though he loves presenting dishes at events KouZina caters (“I’m an artist with food,” he likes to say–flipping lovingly through pictures of spreads he’s put on in the last few years, many of them at events in art museums).
KouZina’s food revolves around gyros–meat sliced off a vertical revolving spit of chicken, a beef-lamb combo, or–here’s a surprise–pork. Bobby says in Greece, pork is the most common meat used in a gyro. In the basement, he introduces one of his workers piling splayed cuts of pork on a spike, which he says will be marinated and chilled for four days before roasting. The Greek pita bread the meat is wrapped in is thicker and oilier than Middle Eastern pita bread. Made while you wait, balls of dough are flattened in a machine that looks like a pasta maker, then cooked with a squirt of oil on the grill. Spinach pie, salads, and avgolemono round out the short menu. For dessert there’s baklava or bougatsa–phyllo pastry interleaved with custard and dusted with cinnamon.
Bobby is an art collector. “I grew up in the restaurant business, but my first job was with Venus Bronze Works doing restoration and conservation [of sculptures] at places like Belle Isle and Cranbrook,” which launched him on a serious love affair with art. For KouZina’s opening he commissioned paintings by a Detroit artist who goes by the name of SLAW (real name Kevin Stanislawski). Manager Josh Weber tries pointing out all the buried Ann Arbor and KouZina symbology in them but falters: “Sometimes the stuff Bobby tells me about art goes in one ear and out the other,” he confesses.
KouZina, 332 S. Main, 997-5155. Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m. gokouzina.com