Like Homemade: Cypriana offers a strong taste of the Mediterranean but struggles in service

A hint of smoke wafts down 39th street, cutting through the mist on a rainy night, conjuring warmer, drier climes, grill-singed food, and conviviality. Follow the scent to Cypriana (105 W. 39th St., [410] 837-7483,, the latest restaurant to make its home in the Broadview apartment building, occupying the space formerly held by La Famiglia. The re-designed space retains a bar, but feels more stripped down and industrial, with exposed concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling woodpiles separating areas in the dining room.

This version of Cypriana is the latest venture by Maria Kaimakis and Vasso Yiannouris, who started the business as a mobile food cart in downtown Baltimore in 1990. Since then, Kaimakis and Yiannouris have cultivated several locations of Cypriana Café as small counter-service establishments in downtown office buildings and health centers. The last cafe, in the University of Maryland Medical Center, will soon close to allow the partners to concentrate on the 39th Street restaurant. Given its longevity on the food scene, it's no surprise then that Cypriana has a following, and throughout the evening we dined, Yiannouris greeted a number of customers of his earlier businesses like old friends

So, good news first. The food is interesting, well-made, and decidedly and authentically Mediterranean, drawing from traditions of both Greece and Cyprus. Everything feels homemade in the best possible sense. The tangy cheese pies ($6 on the brunch menu) are rustic, slightly misshapen, and clearly folded by hand (they're also heavenly). Salads on the somewhat misleadingly named "salad and dip sampler" ($14 for two people) are like those you'd find on the tables of Greek home cooks—string beans cooked in tomato and onion with a hint of coriander, cucumbers napped in sour cream and dill, carrots bright with citrus, a simple lentil salad, and aromatically spiced shredded beets that will convert beet heathens into true believers. Pita is cooked to order and arrives tableside as a pale, pastry balloon, drizzled with butter and perhaps sesame, depending on the dish it accompanies.

Although not entirely apparent from the menu, the set-up here is small plates in various forms. There are soups and several variations of hummus, including one dubbed "hummus of Constantinople" ($9) which arrives hot and nearly soufflé-like in a small cast iron pot. There's also flatbread, meat and seafood kabobs, and a section devoted to "mezedes" or small plates. These include falafel, grilled eggplant, grilled halloumi cheese, keoftedes (meatballs), and lamb-rich stuffed grape leaves ($9). Some small plates felt smaller than others, especially for the price (see the salad sampler, for example). Other dishes—like an order of pork kebabs ($14) with a handful of fries and tabouli—feel less like small plates than just modestly portioned entrees.

For dessert, you can indulge in a custard layered with flaky kataifi pastry ($10) or a Belgian waffle prepared in the style of baklava (for the less sweet-addicted, fruit and yogurt are also available).

Cypriana has an admirable draft selection with several offerings from local brewers. I was pleased, too, to see several Greek wines on the menu, but other wine choices hew closely to generic mass market, large format brands.

All that said, there is a wrinkle at Cypriana, and that is service. Over the course of two visits, no staff member was unkind or intentionally rude or without the desire to do right. But the staff is very green and probably overstretched. Servers had difficulty explaining dishes on the menu and forgot portions of the order. Two different staff members offered to check on the availability of a menu item and neither reported back to the table. When ordering, we were asked if we wanted the food to come out as it was ready (which would indicate that some things would precede others) and we did, but instead everything came out all at once (and often after a considerable wait)—not ideal with small plates. During dinner service, recently vacated tables were left uncleared, and several dirty dishes remained on our table throughout dessert and were still there after the check was paid.

But the most egregious issue occurred at brunch, when one diner was served after the rest of the party of four had finished their meal. The only explanation we were offered was "the kitchen was understaffed." A service blip or two at a new restaurant is par for the course, but this is just inexcusable. Still, everyone we encountered seemed to genuinely mean well, so I have confidence the restaurant can pull itself together, and that the staff, with some experience, will get things under control. Because the food really does merit this. Located where it is, between Loyola and Hopkins campuses and convenient to several north Baltimore neighborhoods with residents who value being able to walk to a restaurant, Cypriana has every chance of being a strong addition to the community.

Cypriana is open seven days a week for dinner and Sunday brunch.

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