Can This Restaurant Be Saved?

What the coffee grounds predict for Taverna Yiasou

You could say we were thrilled with our mezes, or small entrées; all we lacked was a bottle of ouzo. These salty, sour dishes are just the thing to soak up your booze, and we should have polished them off, folded our napkins, belched politely, and trotted away, happily sated. Because the entrées that followed were a disaster.

Only the grilled lamb chops ($21.95) were what you would call edible. As soon as they set our fish down in front of us — a broiled filet of sole ($16.95) with lemon and oregano, and a swordfish steak ($17.95) marinated and charbroiled, I knew by the smell that they were a long way from fresh. I should have predicted the fish was going to be lousy — when was the last time anybody saw filet of sole on a menu for less than 45 bucks? This one was no bargain: full of bones, dry as a summer day in hell, greasy, and smelly. One bite and you wanted to throw it across the room. The swordfish, a thin, desiccated fillet, was no better, despite a very liberal hand with the lemon juice. No bargain either were the sautéed shrimp (garithes santorini, $18.95) — handfuls of feta and tomato couldn't save these babies, which tasted like they'd spent more time than necessary in a freezer.

Somebody in the kitchen needs to figure out how to use salt and oregano. Almost every dish we ate was over-salted — from just slightly (as a salt-lover I don't mind this) to inedibly. And the dried oregano Yiasou uses is bitter and acrid. In our climate there's no excuse for not keeping a big pot of fresh herbs on a windowsill.

Lunch a couple of days later evidenced the same problems. Hummus ($5.95) was so unbalanced by salt and lemon that I couldn't eat more than a couple of bites. The pork chunks in my souvlaki ($7.95) were just short of rancid, overwhelmed by bitter oregano, and super-charred so that they left a bitter aftertaste.

How a Mediterranean restaurant could screw up hummus is beyond me. The stuff gives you a lot of leeway. It's not like you have to measure your tahini and chickpeas precisely. It's not rocket science; it's not even basic astronomy, which the Greeks have always excelled at. You have to be almost willfully ignorant or hostile to serve food this salty, odiferous, or blackened.

I hate this. I hate having to criticize these people, because I so want Yiasou to prosper. I like the owner and the servers and the clientele; I like the casual atmosphere and reasonable prices, the Greek groceries and wines. I can see myself stopping in to pick up a tub of that rich, inimitable yogurt and an order of eggplant dip to go. Why can't they just be better than they are? Why not taste that hummus before it goes out of the kitchen?

But then along came the sweetest girl from behind the counter, after our practically untouched main-course plates had been cleared, who told us they'd just made that day's wonderful galaktoboureko ($4.50), a custard pie wrapped in honey-drenched phyllo. "This is my favorite," she said. "If you don't like it, I'll eat it for you."

Our slab of galaktoboureko came to the table, a piece big enough for four, along with a cup of Greek coffee. The custard is made from an imported mix (which they also sell, f.y.i.). We inhaled every scrumptious bite — sweet, vaguely nutty, smooth, and eggy against the crumbly phyllo. The grounds of my coffee, the sweet girl informed me, had made a pattern on the inside of the cup predictive of money. (About damned time, too, I said.)

I wish those coffee grounds had predicted success for Yiasou, and the whole downtown of West Palm Beach while they were at it. It's time to lift the curse that's addled this city for more than a decade. A good way to start would be for the restaurants that have found their way here to consistently serve great food. And they can start with a pot of fresh herbs. Plants tend to flourish, as should smart businesses, in this kind of sunshine.

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