Restaurant Reviews

All Greek to Me

Most of us will put up with a lot so long as we're well entertained. And reasonably fed. Just give us our bread and circuses — and "Mitt Romney" could be the name of an exotic entrée for all we care.

It wasn't only the Roman hoi polloi who were so easily diverted. Juvenal's ancient precept explains why all these years later, Taverna Opa, one of the longest-running Greek restaurants in South Florida, is still such a hit. Half-naked women, high rollers, exploding crockery, flying napkins, uninhibited drunks — nobody ever accused Opa of failing to put on a show. And their pita ain't bad either.

This waterfront Greek tavern in Hollywood is notorious for its table dancing — rightly so in the case of the belly-shakers with their veils and bells; maybe not so much for the gyrations of bored and embarrassed waitrons required to put down their trays and hop around every so often. There's the amenable clatter of smashing plates, a fat red sun setting over the water, and the kind of revelries fueled by way too much ouzo and retsina. Shiny Jags and Maseratis are forever gunning up to the valet station. Parades of sweet young things in skimpy frippery disembark from cigarette boats. I once saw a woman at Taverna Opa tip her chair backward into the Intracoastal — good fun!

Opa's meze and grilled meats are usually excellent too — from fire-roasted prawns to chickpeas with oil and lemon, served in a mash-it-yourself mortar with grilled bread. It's good news that they're expanding — Taverna Opa Fort Lauderdale has hit its stride, and Taverna Opa City Place is scheduled to debut on the top floor of the old FAO Schwartz building this fall. The same outfit, headed by Peter Tsialiamanis, also runs Taverna Kyma in Boca. More about that in a minute.

The problem: Opa can be impossible to get into. They don't accept reservations (you show up for the 7:30 cattle call and take your chances). And the service is shaky. You may find yourself rustling up your own silverware, marching back to the kitchen with the plate of spanakopita you never ordered, or fending off the "suggestions" of your server, who'd frankly rather not hang out while your party of 15 bickers over the distribution of the meze.

I've gone into some detail here about Opa because for too long it's cornered the local market on wild greens and lamb sausage. It ought to be good news that some fresh Greek-flavored competition has arrived in town to pick up the slack: Avra Taverna on Commercial Boulevard and Taverna Eros in Delray, both new this summer, and Taverna Kyma in Boca, Opa's younger and more sedate cousin, which opened in January. They've all got their own version of party-hearty, with dancing and live music or DJs on weekends. But a belly dance is a belly dance is a belly dance. Just tell me what they're doing with their skordalia.

Not much, in the case of Taverna Eros. I had high hopes for this one; the space they've commandeered on Atlantic Avenue in Delray, a few doors down from 32 East and Delux, is gorgeous, with indoor and outdoor dining, a full bar, and some semi-veiled private tables that could be romantic. Two tall indoor trees (silk, I believe) make a backdrop for the bar between flat screens; the lighting is low and so is the music, at least until the DJ starts spinning around 10 p.m. We stopped by for a round of small plates one Wednesday evening just as the kitchen was closing, at 9:30 (they serve later on weekends), and, thinking the apps would give us the best range, ordered pikilia platter ($12, four dips plus stuffed grape leaves and olives), saganaki (flaming cheese, $7) and grilled octopus ($10) from a menu of meze that included butterflied shrimp and grilled calamari, spanakopita and salads, pan fried smelts (our waiter described these unenthusiastically as "bait fish" — hey, at least he wasn't up-selling us), roast potatoes, fries with dip, and stewed string beans with tomatoes, priced from $4 to $12.

Eros' soft, smoky pita, still warm and cross-hatched with grill marks, and complimentary hummus, was so awesome I'd go back just to devour it with a couple of cocktails. But everything else we ordered turned out to be dismal — over-salted in every case; too full of vinegar for even my sourpuss palate; and weirdly similar, so that the octopus tasted just like the tzatziki (sheep or goat's milk yogurt with cucumber), which tasted like the skordalia (garlicky potatoes with olive oil), which tasted like the taramasalata (cod roe dip), which tasted like the melitsanosalata (roasted eggplant) and the dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) — an unvarying lineup of flavor and texture that wouldn't do a thing to further Greek civilization. Our flaming cheese came to the table flameless ("Oops, I guess it went out," our waiter said), a salty tablet doused in cheap cognac; our "grilled" octopus rings ($10) were puny, pathetic, and sour. After we'd made our way through this mess, my spousal equivalent noted that she felt like she'd just had a bad one-night stand — sort of amusing while you're going at it, but afterwards there's a creeping nausea, part literal, part existential. Did I really need to do that?

A few nights later we tripped lightly down to Avra Taverna, hope springing eternal, based in part on enthusiastic reports from local chowhounds. Avra distinguishes itself by its focus on seafood: The menu says the stuff is imported from Greece or comes via the Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx. Chef Andreas Kotsifos, originally from Crete, has made the rounds at restaurants in Paris, Florence, New York, and Palm Beach. Avra looked like a whole different kettle of fish. We were stoked.

Where Eros is chic and breezy, Avra is ticky-tacky, in a good way, mostly: prows of boats and taxidermied fish and fake grape vines everywhere. The restaurant is laid out in three tiers, a full bar on the third level, a mezzanine, and the lower floor next to the stage, so theoretically everybody has a great view of the stage.

Avra's menu is ambitious, particularly the roster of fish. Chef-owner Kotsifos has rounded up a mini-ecosystem of marine life: two kinds of white snapper, sargos (little sea bream), barbounia (red mullet), grilled sardines, lavraki (the butt-ugly sea wolf), pan-fried codfish, and tsipoura royal dorado from the Mediterranean (not all are available every night), along with local pompano, Maine lobster, blue fin tuna, and Pacific salmon. There's octopus and smelts, grilled shrimp, and a raw bar serving oysters and clams. We started our tour with appetizers of grilled sardines ($8) and stuffed squid ($9.95), and a plate of gigantes lima beans in a light tomato sauce ($5.95) to cut the richness of the seafood. We liked the squid stuffed with herby, soft cheese (watch out for those toothpicks!). Gigantic limas in tomato sauce, liberally sprinkled with chopped fresh oregano and parsley, were great with fresh lemon squeezed on top. But the grilled sardines, charred whole, had an overpoweringly dense flavor I didn't find entirely pleasant.

Whole grilled tsipoura comes black and sizzling from the grill, but this very moist and mild fish, with a texture just short of mushy, needs lots of lemon and requires the extrication of many small bones. At $25 it's still a bargain, even if you don't touch the bland side of potatoes, carrots, and broccoli. So is a kabob of grilled, marinated swordfish with shrimp, scallops, tomatoes, and peppers over rice ($19.95), but the swordfish was overcooked.

None of it was in the least memorable.

And the bathroom at Avra could ruin the heartiest appetite. If go you must, whatever you do, don't look up.

Would we return? Negative.

We had a brighter future. Taverna Kyma in Boca turned out the best of the lot: understated décor in oranges and blues (two trays of autumnal foliage hang from the ceiling), sexy Aegean club music, low prices, good food, a full bar. And no wonder. The menu's identical to Opa's. By now these folks know what to do with a grilled prawn. We loved: crisp fried rounds of zucchini sprinkled with cheese and served with skordalia as a sort of dip (this huge plate of food is a ridiculous bargain at $5). Steamed wild greens ($5) made us feel healthy, soaked in all that olive oil and lemon, though they could have used a pinch of salt. Their spanakopita ($5), the classic spinach pie, wasn't the most delicate version I've ever tasted, but the filling of mint-infused spinach and feta was delectalicious.

Twenty bucks could sate two reasonable appetites here, but ours aren't reasonable. We had tender, flavorful roast lamb ($18) served with a side of green beans and stewed tomatoes and a heap of lemon potatoes. A huge square of moussaka ($12) emitted scent of clove and cinnamon between layers of toothsome sliced potatoes, eggplant, and ground beef topped with a golden layer of broiled white sauce.

We were content. The unsettlingly handsome waiters, the plentiful bread, the hum and bustle of this busy, happy restaurant were enough to divert our minds from whatever our present and future leaders were getting up to. Mitt Romney? Who dat?

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd