Ode to a Grecian Tavern
When do you yell "opa"? A) When the fire from a plate of flaming Greek cheese races toward the ceiling. B) While smashing a shot glass into the floor after an exceptional Greek meal. C) After you've downed so much ouzo you feel you're on top of Mount Olympus. D) When you discover a wonderful Greek taverna on an unlikely stretch of Hollywood Beach. Answer: all of the above.
"Opa" is an exclamation of Greek celebration and the name of a three-month-old Greek restaurant on Ocean Drive in Hollywood. Taverna Opa, perched along the Intracoastal and sporting the bleached white and sky blue colors of the Greek flag, exudes the lazy merriment of the islands of the Aegean. Beneath the waterfront outdoor canopy are all the accouterments of Greece: Water ripples in the background, Greek music blares overhead, and the Mediterranean staff bustles from the kitchen, juggling plates overflowing with stuffed grape leaves, thick and flaky blocks of spinach pie, and all sorts of char-grilled hunks of meat and seafood.
Inside the restaurant the fresh catch of the day -- fish like red mullet or yellowtail snapper -- is displayed on a bed of ice while a cadre of cooks works the grill enveloped in the aromas of garlic and oregano.
Sipping a glass of crisp Greek rose at Taverna Opa one busy Wednesday night, I was whisked back to the carefree island meals I enjoyed years ago in the port of Mykonos and on the cliff-tops of Santorini. Those meals, clouded by retsina (a distinctive medicinal Greek wine) and featuring grilled fresh fish and rich lemony stews of artichokes and lamb, were among the most memorable dining experiences of a year spent traipsing through Europe on a tattered Eurail pass. Only the bent Florida palms across the Intracoastal spoil the Greek-island illusion at Taverna Opa.
The restaurant is the brainchild of Peter Tsialiamanis and George Bakatsias, a couple of transplanted Athenian restaurateurs who are determined to bring the casual pleasures of the traditional Greek taverna to South Florida. The taverna is to Greece what the bistro is to France, the diner to the United States -- a casual place to enjoy good food with good friends at a reasonable price. "A taverna is a place for relaxing," says the restaurant's Greek manager, Yanni Kasarhis. "This is a place to spend four or five hours. Nobody will tell you to leave."
A few months ago, Tsialiamanis and Bakatsias, both long-time veterans of the restaurant business, threw open the doors of a veritable Mediterranean theme park stretching along the Intracoastal. Taverna Opa is the baby brother to the larger, more upscale Giorgio's Grill, which is located next door and has a bakery and gourmet market. Bakatsias has long operated similar establishments in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is a fixture on the restaurant scene.
On three visits to Taverna Opa, the food was fresh and authentic and served with Mediterranean good cheer. Twice I dined solo at the bar, enjoying a light meal and a cold beer. The bartender, who is as generous with a "honey" or a "sweetie" as she is with liquor, plunked down a big wooden chalice filled with marinated whole chickpeas, an enormous quantity of chopped garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil (which appears scattered throughout the menu as the acronym EVOO). The idea is to mash up your own Opa version of hummus with the giant mortar and pestle and spread the lively mixture on warm rolls that arrive in metal cups.
At Taverna Opa, the larger your group the better. That way you can sample as many of the more than two dozen meze as possible. Meze, small dishes that are the Greek equivalent of Spanish tapas, beg to be passed around the table, and at Taverna Opa they are not watered down for an American audience. One item I did not sample was listed among the specials as korkoretsi, without a translation. The logic is that if you don't know what something is, you probably shouldn't order it. Korkoretsi, it turns out, is a plate of lamb intestines, a particularly popular item among the restaurant's Greek patrons.
Herring fillet Regga, an authentic special I did sample, arrived as a plate of intensely salty herring fillets swimming in whole chunks of garlic and olive oil. The overpoweringly briny fish was too much for my palate and will only appeal to diehard anchovy lovers. One meze on the regular menu was sauteed shrimp, two gigantic, perfectly cooked shrimp served with thick triangles of manouri cheese and smothered in chopped tomatoes, garlic, and parsley.
Most of the meze at Taverna Opa are served in portions that are larger than you might expect, as I discovered when I ordered three different plates to nibble on solo. I managed with some difficulty to polish off most everything, but only because each dish was bolder and more delicious than the last. One special was country lamb sausage, grilled spicy sausages in olive oil served with big slices of grilled red and green peppers. Another special, a small eggplant stuffed with ground lamb, was like moussaka in miniature. I also tried the scordalia, a creamy mashed-potato spread rich with garlic and lemon. It arrived warm and ready to be slathered on bread.
One night, seeking a light meal, I idled up to the bar and ordered a souvlaki sandwich. The restaurant's souvlaki is as good as any I've tasted in Athens, where street vendors sell the sandwiches on every corner. At Taverna Opa the grilled skewers of chicken or pork arrive on a bed of crisp, warm Greek flatbread dotted with fresh tomato chunks, shredded lettuce, and tzatziki -- the Greek sauce of yogurt, garlic and cucumber. Fragrant with plenty of oregano, the meat is lightly charred on the outside, plump and moist on the inside. It goes down perfectly with an ice-cold beer.
Taverna Opa's entrees are enticing though less reliable than the meze. According to the list of specials one night, a brochette of grilled seafood was supposed to include swordfish, shrimp, and scallops. The brochette arrived with two thick hunks of swordfish, an enormous shrimp, and blackened cubes of peppers and onions but no scallop. Still, the fish and shrimp were delicious and perfectly cooked, and the brochette was accompanied by spicy Greek rice with tomatoes and leeks. Another special, the roast leg of lamb, was a thick slab of fragrant, moist lamb, but it was lukewarm. Wonderfully seasoned roasted potato wedges accompanied the lamb.
Taverna Opa has a relatively large wine list for a casual Greek restaurant. Greek wine is fun, easy-drinking wine, and at the restaurant it's served in short cocktail tumblers for easier toasting. The restaurant has a selection of a dozen or so inexpensive Greek wines, mostly whites. I tried the Lac des Roches, a tart, crisp white wine, and the Roditas, an easy, fruity rose.
With so much great food, it's hard to make room for dessert, although it may be worth trying. Taverna Opa's baklava is crumbly but moist and absolutely addictive. Even better is the galaktoboureko, a thick custard pie with phyllo and honey.
Taverna Opa is a welcome excursion into authenticity for Hollywood Beach. After three months it is already drawing crowds that seem likely to forgive a missing scallop here and a lukewarm piece of meat there. Those little kinks are nothing a few shots of ouzo won't make you forget.
Taverna Opa. 410 N. Ocean Dr., Hollywood, 954-929-4010. Open for dinner nightly from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Country lamb sausage
Souvlaki with pita
Roast leg of lamb
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