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You know that old saying from the Reese's peanut butter cup commercial: Peanut butter and chocolate are two great tastes that taste great together! During a procession of appetizers at Trata Greek Taverna on Las Olas Boulevard, it was more like ten great tastes that taste great together.
On the table was a spread of plates that, on their own, would have been downright tasty. But together, they formed a special tandem, like Rice and Montana or Manning and Harrison. There was horiatiki ($6.95), a Japanese-sounding Greek word for a simple salad of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and onion. The only ingredients added to the rustic salad were a thick wedge of feta cheese and a cascade of lemon, olive oil, and heady dried oregano. That left a satisfying sauce in its wake — into which I promptly dipped rings of tender, grilled calamari ($9.95), its white flesh licked by flame and cooled by creamy lemon vinaigrette. As I took alternating bites of salad, then calamari, a rhythm took over. Pretty soon, I was tearing off hunks of crusty bread and dipping it in herb-flecked olive oil dotted with mashed feta and lemon.
Greek food — and Mediterranean food in general — is famous for its simplicity. There's a harmony of flavors at work that makes the commingling of dishes seem completely natural. At Trata, a 7-month-old restaurant that took over the old Teal spot on ritzy Las Olas Boulevard, these overarching tastes are borne out across the menu the way a plot line is sewn into a play. The connecting dots are olive oil, lemon, garlic, and oregano, the four of which are employed uniformly across nearly every dish. Vegetables both fresh and roasted get treated with the stuff; so do lamb and veal chops that have been grilled over open flame, and a variety of seafood. When taken as a whole, the complementary flavors form a fantastic meal. Add a solid Greek wine list, a seasoned wait staff, and a lovely patio setting and Trata seems to have nailed the recipe for Mediterranean success.
Yet on a weekend night, Trata was surprisingly slow despite plenty of foot traffic at this end of Las Olas. From my seat under the canvas-topped patio equipped with oscillating fans, I watched scores of people walk by the menu hanging on the front gate, give it a cursory glance, then continue onward. Women in sun hats pushed baby strollers; couples followed, sporting flip-flops and licking ice-cream cones. Few passersby seemed to give this version of Greek cuisine — devoid of the all-too-common spectacle of napkin flinging and belly dancing — much thought. Instead, they'd walk next door to Tuscan Grill and grab a pizza. About midway into my spread of appetizers, I was so upset by the snubbing that I wanted to get out on the stoop and shill for the place. Instead, I sat and watched a balding man in a red polo shirt sip coffee on the patio as he smiled politely at the passersby.
That man is Trata's head chef and co-owner, Dimitrios Tsiakanikas, or "Jimmy the Greek," as he's more commonly known. Jimmy's a first-generation immigrant and a restaurant lifer. He's been in the business for more than 48 years, he told me, tracing a path from his homeland to the Florida Keys and Montreal. In addition to Trata, Tsiakanikas runs Greek Express, a gyro place on Fort Lauderdale beach, as well as Mythos, a well-regarded Coral Springs eatery with white-tablecloth service and an equal aversion to using Greek food as a tourist trap. He considers his latest restaurant, a joint venture with longtime friend Krenar "Kenny" Alushani, the latest baby in his growing family.
I appreciate Tsiakanikas for focusing on food rather than gimmicks, I do. But I also wonder if that's enough to succeed on a Las Olas brimming with clubby restaurants (SoLita) and live entertainment (Mancini's). Without the ouzo being poured down open gullets or belly dancers playing snake charmer to flaming cheese, Trata's confines look rather plain. The inside is essentially the same restaurant as Teal before it — a dark room lined with Greek paintings and a copper-colored bar top. It's hardly unattractive, but one step into the claustrophobic restaurant had me and my guests resolved to dine al fresco, where the view is much more ideal.
Our waiter that night, olive-skinned and tall with a pressed white shirt and long apron, was affable and knew all the menu's intricacies. He schooled us on the differences between saganaki, a brandy-flambéed cheese made famous at Greek restaurants all over, and saganakia, trays of shrimp, mussels, or scallops laced with tomatoes and feta and then baked. And when he informed me that the restaurant was out of the charbroiled baby quail, he rattled off an impromptu list of which whole fish were available, including bronzini and yellowtail snapper, each priced under $30.
I settled on porgie ($28.95), a fish found in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Trata serves it true to form, grilled whole with olive oil and lemon so that the skin crisps and caramelizes, then finished in the oven to cook evenly.
When it arrived, it was beautiful — stunningly charred and nearly a foot long, it almost seemed to ride its almond-shaped plate proudly. The meat was buttery and supple, so much that as I picked at it, whole sections slid cleanly off the spiky little bones. Knowing that some people are intimidated by the thought of a whole fish staring back at them, our waiter had offered to fillet the porgie for me. But I much preferred to eat it whole, mining the critter's best parts: the slick meat that comes out of the hollows in the fish's cheeks and near the jaw and forehead; and a prized jewel of hearty flesh that powers the pelvic fin. You can't get that with a fillet.
Like our appetizers, the entrées seemed plated to let flavors mingle and cohere. My fish was set above a mound of roasted lemon potatoes and what I had thought was braised dandelion greens. On closer inspection, I found that the greens were actually lemon-enhanced rapini, a concession Tsiakanikas later tells me he made when his supplier couldn't come up with the proper ingredients. The potatoes, skinless and cut into half-circles, looked a little bit like something you'd find at a banquet dinner. But they tasted deeply roasted, crowned with plenty of rich lemon zest.
Also great: A fillet of grouper ($23.95) one of my friends shared with me was loaded with salty capers and the same olive oil and lemon sauce found on the calamari and my porgie. I loved the salty elements — it was almost like a Greek version of grouper française. But my friend pushed most of the capers off to the side in favor of the well-cooked fish. A tray of roasted squash, zucchini, and red pepper we shared was deeply caramelized and tasted like summer. It also melded perfectly with the delicate porgie, pieces of grilled shrimp saganakia ($13.95), and that fabulous bread smeared with homemade hummus.
All the while, the service was empathetic and swift. Each time our waiter came and went from our table, he offered some cozy Greek saying. He even managed to woo us into an order of baklava ($4.95) by describing in detail how the restaurant makes the homemade orange preserves that go along with it. The oranges are sectioned and boiled, peel and all, in a mixture of water, honey, cinnamon, and clove. By the time they get to the table, the peels are soft and candy-like. I'm so glad we got them. On its own, the baklava is sweet but also standard, with a dense filo crust that begs for something softer. Coupled with the orange preserves, though, it became something greater — a yin and yang of sweet and bitter, soft and chewy. Better still, it was the kind of pairing that showcases precisely what Trata does best.