It's unclear how you take the owners of one mediocre Greek restaurant, combine them with the chef from another similarly unremarkable taverna, and come up with something as wonderful as Ouzo Blue.
You could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out that Odis Giakis, former owner/chef of the late, not-great Taverna Yiasou on Datura Street in West Palm, had teamed up with the foursome that launched Taverna Opa in CityPlace. I wasn't a fan of either Greek eatery — I'd had terrible meals at both and suffered through lousy service and a deafening din at the gigantic CityPlace Opa.
But what this group has done at the two-week-old Ouzo Blue in downtown Lake Worth is astonishing. I had the best gyro of my life at lunch there one day, and that's not the half of it. They've remodeled the space suddenly vacated by Prime 707 (the staff at Prime showed up one day to find the doors locked, and that was the last word on the subject). They added two bars — one outdoors and one in — that serve suitably Greek-themed cocktails, hired a belly dancer, and expanded their hours to 3 a.m. on weekends, evidently hoping for some late-night action. I profoundly hope they get it, along with the crowds they deserve at lunch and dinner, because the food Giakis is turning out of his open kitchen — from a braised leg of lamb to his scrumptious stuffed grape leaves — is just marvelous.
And I do yearn to put the words marvelous and Greek in one sentence when it comes to South Florida dining. The Taverna Opa chain, now a franchise, has dominated Greek cuisine in Broward and Palm Beach for some time, and frankly, there are too many issues at these restaurants. The places are often much too noisy; all that table dancing and plate smashing is fine when you're in the mood for it and damned annoying when you want to hold an audible conversation over your souvlaki. There can be a hellish wait at the Hollywood venue — I once stood for four hours with a party of ten in the parking lot there and never did get a table. Their food isn't always consistent, and it doesn't have a whole lot of subtlety (copious garlic in the smashed chickpeas, a heavy hand with the salt). It's time somebody upped Opa's ante.
As luck would have it, I stumbled across two Greek restaurants in Lake Worth last month that might do just that. Skorpios II is due west on Lake Worth Road, camouflaged in a strip mall I've blindly driven by a thousand times. Skorpios II is the southern branch of a Greek restaurant in Long Island, opened 27 years ago by Dennis and Nick Goussis. The penniless brothers had immigrated in 1969 from the Greek island of Corfu and made their fortune with recipes for their home-cooked specialties. Nick Goussis and his family moved to Lake Worth to open Skorpios II a decade ago. He recently doubled the size of the place, adding a blue-lit room with Arcadian photos of Greek hilltop towns and a sound system broadcasting folk music.
In everything but quality, Skorpios II is as different from Ouzo Blue as you can imagine. Where Ouzo is chic and glitzy, Skorpios is cozy, unpretentious, and exceedingly cheerful. And there's not a drop of decent booze to be had in the place (my glass of house wine was atrocious — seeing I'd barely touched it, they sweetly offered to remove it from my bill). Skorpios II is full of Greeks eating the kind of food they remember from the old country, and those customers who aren't Greek begin to wish they were by the time they scrape up the last crumb of Skorpios' homemade butter cookies.
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Depending on what kind of mood you're in, these two places ought to satisfy the full range of your Aegean cravings. At Ouzo Blue, two big dolmades (stuffed grape leaves, $6) come filled with minced lamb and rice. Draped in lemon sauce, they're so unlike the sour little cigars served at most Greek restaurants that they hardly seem like the same food. These melt in your mouth, revealing alternating waves of spice, starch, and oil. Piping-hot pitas are perfect for scooping from the pikilia plate ($13), a trio that includes pudding-like Greek yogurt mined with diced cucumber and garlic, silky baba gannouj, and salty taramasalata caviar cream. Spanakopita (spinach pie, $6) is an almost ridiculous bargain for two three-inch rectangles of bliss, the crackling pastry layered with olive oil and bulging with spinach and giant chunks of fresh feta cheese. It's addictive in a way that could wreak havoc on any New Year's diet plan.
Both our entrées here were outstanding. Five jumbo shrimp baked in a "secret" sauce (garides, $19, or as an appetizer, $10) made from tomato, minced green pepper and onion, dill, and a spice I'm guessing is cinnamon. It was served over brown rice completely infused with shellfish broth. That plate had more flavor than it had any right to. Roast leg of lamb ($17) appeared more braised than roasted, the consistency of pot roast and a very slight (but not at all unpleasant) mutton flavor; creamy lamb gravy and fat, crunchy potato fingers, deliciously accentuated with lemon and oregano, came with it. Both shrimp and lamb arrived with a side I'd be happy to make a meal of: baked green beans and rounds of carrot in a chunky tomato garlic sauce, complex with the mingled essences of slow-cooked vegetables and herbs.
As for the best gyro I've ever had ($7), the tender pressed lamb and beef is spit-roasted on site; it's smoky and rich, paired with yogurt sauce, tomato, and lettuce and wrapped in a perfectly pillowy pita roughly the size of your forearm. I dare anybody to eat this over-the-top sandwich in one sitting. If you can possibly stuff down another bite, the baklava ($5), made from Giakis' grandmother's recipe, is another "best." Surprisingly, it's not too sweet, with a double-thick layer of pistachios and walnuts sandwiched between gossamer layers of filo.
I've heard the same thing said ("best gyro," "best Greek," "best falafal") about Skorpios too. Regular customers and Greek émigrés have waxed poetic about its merits on messageboards all over South Florida. Dishes here are simply prepared and taste like something your grandmother would have fed you if you'd been lucky enough to have a Greek yaya: crunchy fried zucchini strips drizzled with pomegranate sauce ($5.95) and falafel rounds dipped in tahini that seem to melt on contact with your tongue; spicy, wine-braised Greek sausage flecked with orange rind (loukaniko, $14.95); and tiny and tender baby lamb chops ($17.95), lightly charred and perfectly grilled, that outshine the same dish at many upscale restaurants. Dinner entrées include a small, tart Greek salad loaded with crumbled feta and ripe olives, rice pilaf, a rather watery egg-lemon soup, and a vegetable (baked green beans the night we dined), so you won't walk away hungry. Also on the menu: Greek pizza, a pasta called pastichio made with chopped beef and béchamel (the Greek version of lasagna), moussaka, cheese pie, a variety of meze, and chicken or lamb shish kebabs. For dessert, homemade galactobureko ($3.75) is so good that it was lauded by Bon Appétit magazine: thin layers of filo layered with egg custard and suffused with honey. Included in the price of the entrée are a couple of crumbly, buttery Greek cookies (koudimbedes) dusted with confectioners' sugar. I don't know what the Greek term for "Yum!" is, but it should be the national exclamation. However you pronounce it, we South Floridians have finally earned the right to shout it from our rooftops.