August 13, 2009 at 1:00 am

Molly Abraham

Fresh, authentic menu revitalizes classy Ernie's

Waitress Cheryl Ringold collects sweet desserts as chef Marcelino Reyes Velazquez awaits his next order. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)

Walk into the dining room at the restaurant that was established by the late Ernie Backos in 1979, and the first thing you notice is an enormous taverna table piled high with olives, cheeses, cured meats, red and yellow tomatoes nestled in a bowl of ice, tzatziki (yogurt and garlic dip), skordalia (pureed potatoes with herbs and garlic), spinach pies and other housemade pastries.

What a terrific introduction to the new scheme of things here.

It immediately signals that the Backos family has indeed gone back to its Mediterranean roots, putting the emphasis on fresh ingredients and authentic preparations from family recipes.

A white-capped chef presides over the taverna table and the oven tucked into a colorfully tiled alcove where pita bread is freshly baked and salads and appetizers are freshly put together to order.

Ernie Backos' family came from Sparta, Greece, and his wife, Cynthia, is from one with roots in the Akrotiri Peninsula of Crete. Two of their four children, Sam and Marlaina, have run the restaurant for several years now, and decided last year to, in a sense, go back to the future by rewriting the menu. That extends even to the pastry cart that is trundled to the tables at the end of the meal.

The other evening, a guest started to wave the cart away, expecting the standard fancy cakes and pastries, until the table noticed that it was no ordinary array, but one with enticing housemade desserts including orange-spiced honey walnut cake, rice pudding and three kinds of freshly baked cookies. It was pretty irresistible.

But first, of course, had come warm pita rounds from the oven next to the taverna table, along with something to nibble on, little bowls of multicolored Greek olives, roasted garlic and sliced radishes set into a wrought-iron compote. No one sits for long before the trio is put on the table.

Tables are centered with a pepper mill, sea salt and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, and it's not just any olive oil, but one from the orchard of a relative in Crete. Bright blue linen napkins are another nice touch, as is the appropriate acoustic background music that evokes the Mediterranean.

The menu leads off with hot and cold meze (small plates) such as hummus, roasted eggplant salad and tzatziki; lamb and beef meatballs sparked with oregano and fresh mint; lamb ribs glazed with ouzo and nutmeg; vegetable-stuffed grape leaves; and Moroccan chicken skewers with yogurt/celery seed dip, all designed for sharing.

In addition to the classic egg/lemon/rice soup, avgolemono, there is also an interesting bean and vegetable soup called fasoulada among the appetizers.

Entrees include flame-grilled lamb, chicken or shrimp kebabs marinated in oil, lemon juice, garlic and herbs, and they may be ordered individually or in combos; beautifully charred lamb chops, in multiples of three or five -- the most popular dish -- as well as a daily changing whole fish and a couple of chicken and pasta dishes. But the list doesn't go on and on. It's been nicely edited.

Side dishes include delicious oven-roasted potatoes sparked with lemon and oregano, as well as seven-vegetable couscous and Greek-style fried potatoes.

The wine list includes a notable Cabernet Sauvignon from Crete, and it's the perfect accompaniment to the sturdy fare.

The new Ernie's belongs on the dining map of anyone who appreciates Mediterranean fare. And isn't that most of us these days?

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The grilled shrimp kebab is served with seven-vegetable couscous (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
Fred Loos of St. Clair Shores and Bunny Binnio of Sterling Heights dine on ... (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
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