Ask for the moussaka at this Greek specialty store in Scarborough
Cosmos Agora is located at 2004 Lawrence Ave. E.
While Scarborough's so-called Shawarma Row on Lawrence Avenue East continues to be the epicentre of Middle Eastern cuisine in the GTA, the last year has seen the sprawling street branch out into other international cuisines.
Less than a year ago, I noticed a sign for a new grocery store called Cosmos Agora. The Greek store took over an iconic address on Shawarma Row — it was home to Nabil's, one of the first Middle Eastern businesses in Scarborough.
I would argue Nabil's kickstarted what would become Shawarma Row nearly 30 years ago.
While there are still a handful of small Greek bakeries and restaurants spread throughout the city, Cosmos Agora is a unicorn in Scarborough. It is owned and operated by Bill Stamatopoulos and John Manikis: both veteran business owners with a long history of operating specialty grocery stores in Toronto.
Stamatopoulos used to own a grocery store on the Danforth in the 80s, but moved on to other restaurant projects after his brother — and business partner — died. About a year ago, he came across an available lease for a space on Shawarma Row.
"I've long had a vision of opening a multi-part specialty grocery store and food place," Stamatopoulos said. "The space here fit that vision, so John and I jumped at the opportunity."
Cosmos Agora is part grocery store, cheese shop, butcher shop, bakery and hot counter. It is a sprawling space that offers plenty of distraction with every turn.
During my first few visits, I discovered specialty feta cheeses that Stamatopoulos brings in from Greece. Some are aged in wine barrels for a few months to impart a slight tannic and peppery taste.
There are also specialty olive oils that I haven't seen before, including vintage-specific options that arrive during certain months of the year.
There's a type of soda I recently discovered called mastika, which is made with resin from the mastic tree on the island of Chios. It has all the qualities of high-quality gin, but without the alcohol.
There's a section dedicated to imported Greek chocolates, and another for hard-to-find olives. Like many of the places I recommend, the personalities of this place really add to the whole experience. You'll find Stamatopoulos and Manikis wandering the store to lend some insight into the various products they bring in.
"Part of the experience here is to not educate, but introduce people to certain types of Greek products," Stamatopoulos said. "We're able to bring in so much more than even a decade ago."
With the benefits of having a butchery program on site, expect to find a variety of prepared souvlaki and house-made sausages. The pork and leek sausage is a highlight — everyone I have introduced it to loves it.
After you've perused and tasted your way through cheeses and olives, make your way to the hot counter. There's barely a menu hanging over the kitchen hood — "gyros" and "souvlaki," it will read — but ignore that and ask questions, instead. Manikis's and Stamatopoulos's ethos of regionality applies at the hot counter. The menu changes daily, and everything I have had is memorable.
The gyro and souvlaki are standouts. Slow cooked meats, one on a vertical spit and the other on a grill, are both juicy and tender with a liberal amount of spicing.
Ask for the moussaka: the version at Cosmos Agora is one I keep going back to. The layered baked dish of eggplant, potato and ground meat comes to life with prominent nutmeg spicing that complements the eggplant and meat.
You should also try the pastitzio — another layered dish made of pasta and ground meat that is blanketed with a generous amount of béchamel sauce. It is a comfort dish in every sense.
There's also an impressive baked goods and desserts program at Cosmos Agora. Stamatopoulos recruited a longtime baker known to the Danforth Greek community. "He is a shy gentleman that is a powerhouse," Stamatopoulos said.
"He's been making Greek pastry for close to 40 years." On the menu, you'll find classic Greek sweets like tulumba — fried dough that is dunked in a sweet syrup. The tulumba is made fresh in the mornings and it is at its peak when it's still warm.