Burnside and SW 2nd Avenue 224-8577

Sing, O Muse, of the legend of Alexis, great warrior of Hellenic Portland, whom Pithy Dionysus once lavished with wine and song, and with the fragrant essence of garlic and spices from the East. Sing, Muse, of the epic saga of Alexis the warrior, soon to be visited upon by the torturous half-men/half-beasts, the modern descendents of the Portland Apollo, the food staff of the Portland Mercury.

Alexis, a Greek restaurant on West Burnside and 2nd Avenue, has been around since Watergate. And like a box of saltines left out on the shelf too long, it has become stale. The cave-like entryway is wallpapered with ancient reviews, all positive, from previous decades. For those of you who've lived here long enough to remember it, the old Portland Downtowner magazine claimed in 1986 that Alexis was one of the best restaurants in Portland.

Well, sometime between 1986 and the 21st Century, walls fell, buildings collapsed, and the world has changed for better or worse. Alexis has not; but if they wish to survive their current clientele, they'd better get with the times.

I'm not implying that the food here is entirely mediocre; just generally unexciting, uninspired, and without any bells and whistles. A spanikopita appetizer was smooth and nutty and had the right proportions of cheese, spinach and phyllo dough. It sure arrived quickly, though, and I'm guessing that it had been to the microwave (one concession to modern cooking, right?). Fried calamari was super tender, but not crunchy enough. The accompanying tzatziki sauce was incredibly garlicky and wonderful. It would make a terrific appetizer by itself as a dip for the fresh sesame bread, which was crusty and warm, but again, not so exciting. A plate of hummus was way off-base; it tasted funny, presumably because it had been made with chick pea powder, a shortcut ingredient that never turns out quite right when I use it at home. A bowl of lentil soup was thin and flavorless and tasted of canned vegetable stock.

My entrée of rack of lamb was enjoyable; the little chops were well seasoned and grilled up just right--succulent and charred. But the side of vegetables was horribly mushy and swimming in a goofy, canned tomato sauce marred by dried spices. The same dried spices turned up in the side salad, which was dressed with some generic oil rather than the customary olive oil.

For a new restaurant to make a splash in the Portland restaurant scene, there needs to be an emphasis on fresh ingredients; meals should be cooked to order, and flavors have to meet the needs of the modern tongue, which has met with spicier cuisines like Indian, Middle Eastern, and Korean.

Greek food, when prepared with skill, love, and gusto, can match the best of Europe and Asia in piquancy and diversity of flavor. But since Greek immigration has tapered off, there haven't been too many Greek entrepreneurs bringing modern Greek food to America, and the cuisine has grown stale. Fortunately, a few places like Eleni's in Sellwood have popped up across the country, showcasing the fresh, modern side of Greek cooking; soon, the old lumbering dinosaurs will languish, and the exhilarating aroma of lemon, garlic, oregano, yogurt, and grilled lamb and seafood will evolve and prosper.