Can This Restaurant Be Saved?
Sometimes I wonder if, back in the roaring 1990s, all those black families who lived in shanty shacks and cracker houses and cement block apartments just outside downtown West Palm Beach put a hex on the city when they moved out. They'd been relocated, evicted, or strongly encouraged to sell so their homes could be bulldozed for what eventually became the uppercrusty live/shop complex City Place. That was supposed to be the beginning of a renaissance for a city that has been limping on gimpy legs ever since, frantic to attract businesses that will put down stakes and draw lots of jolly people to ride in those empty horse-drawn carriages and quaint little trolley cars. Ding-ding! All aboard!
West Palm has certainly had one piece of bad luck after the next in the last decade, a litany of woes that would almost make you feel sorry for the planners if they hadn't bungled so much else out of greed and hubris. Street reconstruction stretched into years; historic buildings sat blinking their blind, vacant eyes; and anybody tracking the revolving door of restaurants and shops — the ever-hopeful and the inevitably failing — couldn't help but see that the city's problems needed more fixing than cheery forecasts from local PR flaks could provide.
One such forecast crossed my path a few months ago, courtesy of the sunnily optimistic, glass-half-full office of Carey O'Donnell, a publicist who's been around long enough to have seen it all. "New Businesses Flock to Downtown West Palm Beach" the headline trumpeted. Seeing as how it was almost summer when I received this piece of good news, when life is slow around these parts, I put off checking out all the flocking and jostling until the weather cooled. When it got to be October and the humidity index dropped under 90, I ventured out to see what I could see.
I had in mind a newish Greek place on Datura Street called Taverna Yiasou; it opened last spring. As coincidence would have it, a contaminated water alert that stretched into a week of boiled water and showerless mornings for local residents had put a bit of an e. coli-infected damper on things. You had to wonder how, if locals were brushing their teeth with San Pellegrino, a restaurateur was supposed to be able to turn out three-course meals for customers without, presumably, washing a dish or mopping a floor. "You couldn't pay me to eat down there right now," a friend remarked.
Apparently a lot of other people agreed. As we executed our pre-prandial stroll from Narcissus Avenue up Clematis and along Federal, we passed nary a soul. It was 8 p.m. on a beautiful, breezy Saturday night, and even Starbucks was shuttered. A few other fooderies had been brave enough or desperate enough to stay open: We passed Ken's Steakhouse on Narcissus, entirely customer-free, where the proprietor sat at an outdoor table, sighing audibly.
West Palm Beach looked like an abandoned stage set after the gay troupe has moved on. But as we came round a corner, there was Taverna Yiasou glittering like a mirage. Light spilled from open doors, and customers kicked back at sidewalk tables, puffing cigars, ragging each other in exotic dialects. Inside, only one booth was open, and it had our name on it. We parked ourselves and observed the bustle: baby girls in party dresses draped in frills, grown up girls in stacked heels and spray-on skirts, guys in slouchy suits, old men patting the fannies of the grown-up girls, everybody kissing and hugging and glad-handing and roaming between tables, making merry. We'd found ourselves in the middle of a big fat Greek party.
And we allowed how this was probably a very good sign, because, after all, transplanted Athenians oughta know their spanakopita, right?
As it turned out, these Greeks were indeed experts of grilled octopus grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice; avgolemono, a lemon-orzo soup, which is free with an entrée; and flaming cheeses. On the other hand, they knew zilch about fillet of sole, squat about swordfish, nada about sautéed shrimp; and their expertise with pork souvlaki was null and void. Our meal was uneven the way a roller coaster is: exhilarating highs and stomach-churning lows. My ride kept racing downhill at lunch a couple of days later.
I don't really get why this should be so. Odis Giakis, the personable guy who owns Taverna Yiasou, had two Greek restaurants before this one, in Delray and Greenacres. Any kinks in his menu or delivery should long since have been ironed flat. Yiasou's decor is consumer-friendly, with tile floors and blue-and-white-checked tablecloths, fishing nets, oversized photos of Greek scenery, sturdy chairs, and shelves displaying Mediterranean groceries for sale, including yogurt, tahini, orzo, a couple of imported cheeses, dried oregano, anchovies, and phyllo dough. It's an everyday kind of place, not so chic as its competitor a block over, Leila, which serves a similar menu in an entirely different register.
Our dinner started excellently. When the staff flamed our saganaki Yiasou (kefalo gravera cheese soaked in brandy and set alight, $9.95) the fire nearly licked the ceiling. An impressive display, and the melted cheese, spooned onto grilled pita, oozed in a most appetizing way. A vegetarian platter ($10.95) offered sweet-salty slices of eggplant, crosshatched from the grill; excellent and satisfyingly lemony lamb-and-rice-stuffed dolmades; and a flaky, savory triangle of spanakopita, the de rigeur spinach and feta pie. Super-tender char-grilled octopus ($10.95), dripping with olive oil and served with chunks of chopped tomato, hit the spot. And although it was over-thickened with cornstarch, the avgolemono had a zesty punch.
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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