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An Enchanting Isle 


Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
If given the opportunity to become one of the thousands, nay, millions of characters who have appeared in the equally innumerable stories dreamed up since the dawn of time -- and no, I'm not familiar with all of them, but still -- I would choose to become a Greek named Odysseus, hero of Homer's Odyssey. Granted, Odysseus suffered lifetimes' worth of tribulations during the decade he spent returning to rugged Ithaka -- the wrath of gods, men's treachery, the fruit of his own follies, the last being what makes great-hearted, proud, deceitful Odysseus such an entirely fascinating character -- but in the end I think his trials were a small price for hearing the song of the Sirens and learning the means of his own demise in the Land of the Dead.

Of course, I'd need companions, like my gambling buddies Scott, Todd, Paul, and Chris, who might not appreciate me usurping the starring role, if only because Odysseus' shipmates meet a variety of gruesome ends. So maybe we could skip those parts of the story, or, even better, have absolute control of our own destinies (as if) as we traveled in our black ship across seas that swarmed with fish. We'd need an ATM machine, and poker chips, and at least a thousand decks of cards, and I bet Scott would want a sports section every day. And while I'm all in favor of roasting fat sheep over an open fire, it would be nice to come upon a restaurant every now and again, a warm, hospitable place where we could recount our many adventures and feast on good things from both land and sea.

I think Mezes would do the trick just fine. Named for the traditional Greek tapas-style appetizers meant to be shared among family and friends, this relatively new addition to Chestnut Street seems made for lively gatherings, from the smiling-eyed hostess who greets you as you enter to the fresh flowers, whitewashed brick, and sun-yellow walls that fill a narrow, high-ceilinged space with warmth and light. Throw in friendly, attentive service and more than three dozen well-made, classic Greek dishes, and you've set the stage for a marvelously social ritual.

As it turned out, our meal represented a reunion of sorts, since I hadn't seen Scott, Todd, Paul, and Chris for a while. Or at least not all in the same place. In various combinations, the five of us have wasted a good 2,000 hours over the years pursuing games of chance, always for money, a tradition that's spawned a unique collection of poker games -- reverse Cabin Boy, five card double draw, low-in-the-hole Cincinnati (preferably with a God hand) -- and a slew of banter so laden with bizarre slang and improper metaphors the folks who know us as polite, well-balanced individuals would gape in horror if I repeated even the mildest utterings.

In other words, I love these guys, and feel like I can be myself around them, the only thing I ever ask of those I consider my friends. As we took our seats, they brought me up to date: Paul has been DJ-ing; deuces (twos) are now referred to as "dooters" (deuters?). And, with that settled, we ordered a mildly tannic Kouros red from Nemea, then embarked on a leisurely, well-paced banquet rich in lemon, oregano, garlic, and dill.

Since we ordered a second portion, the spanakotiropita seems a good place to start. Approximately 27 layers of flaky phyllo held a savory blend of spinach, feta, and herbs, a perfect pastry removed from the oven during what I would estimate is the 30-second window in which phyllo takes on a piercing crispness. As our waiter explained, many dishes at Mezes have been toned down to suit American tastes, hence our mild, pleasant tzatziki; warm, hearty roasted eggplant salad with grilled pita; thick dolmathes with a side of tzatziki; and avgolemono, traditional egg-lemon soup with chicken broth and rice -- simple dishes that fulfilled their missions and called no more attention to themselves than necessary.

The kolokithokeftedes (and if you ask me, non-Greeks who can pronounce "kolokithokeftedes" on the first try should get a dollar off) cast a more potent spell. Like the spanakotiropita, these oven-fresh zucchini-potato cakes glowed with an outer crispness that gave way to a soft, rich center. That called for more wine -- a crisp, citrusy Kouros white from Patras -- and a series of toasts: Hoisting their glasses skyward, my companions saluted me for taking them out, I saluted them for coming, and then we offered tribute to whoever was manning the oven, that his timing might always be so impeccable.

As tends to happen when friends toast, we ran out of booze shortly thereafter, hence our third bottle, the cheapest money could buy -- a pine-sweet retsina kourtaki. Fresh wineglasses arrived, plates were whisked away, and from there we moved from the garden to the sea with the octapodi psito, marinated grilled octopus, its mild, tender tentacles improved by a hint of crispness. Of the dozen dishes we tried, only the xifias fell flat, since the grilled swordfish seemed a tad dry, and was poorly served by its one-dimensional lemon sauce.

The mythia -- a heaping bowl of mussels in a cream-rich ouzo broth -- proved a wiser, more complex choice. Though the mussels were as tender and succulent as could be, the sauce elevated the dish immeasurably, a tangy, languid blend that I continued to spoon long after the last mussel met its fate. Noticing the empty bowl, our passing hostess tried to remove it, at which point I told her we weren't finished. Well, in that case, we needed more bread, she replied.

As the blessed serenity that emanates from the well-fed settled over our table, I decided the food at Mezes, xifias excepted, fit neatly into a scale of one to two, one being satisfactory, two extraordinary. To me, that's a pretty admirable range, and the trend continued with a lemon-rich chicken souvlaki with onions, bell peppers, and oregano, and the patates psites, thick wedges of roasted potato, also with lemon and oregano, both of which earned a one.

Then came the special of the day, arni youvetsi , a dooter if ever there was one. Two monstrous haunches of roasted lamb shank sprinkled with zesty mizithra cheese sat atop tender orzo, the lamb rendered effortlessly spoonable by a sweet tomato marinade in which Todd, clever fellow, detected an undertone of cinnamon. Since he ordered the lamb, Todd requested that I compose an entire paragraph to sing its praises, which hardly seems adequate considering what happened next.

So here's a second paragraph, wherein your humble food reviewer describes the magic that befell us after we consumed this ambrosial dish. Though not lacking in either quality, Todd became taller and handsomer by far. I myself was rendered impervious to dread goddesses and malignant drugs, while when Paul rubbed his palms together, then twinkled his fingers, he conjured the most delicious house music any of us had ever heard. As for Scott and Chris: Finally, the countless squabbles these two have engaged in over the past 15 years -- and people, I've seen red-faced, fist-clenching near-brawls, heard insults that would make a dog cry, and once, following a particularly vicious Monopoly dispute, I saw one of them, who shall remain nameless, slap the playing board clean off the table and storm out of the other's apartment in a hail of obscenities, only to return for more gambling the following day -- gave way to their true feelings, and, weeping the gentle tears of friendship, they embraced, promising that if one should perish, the other would give his companion a proper burial and make sure men and women as yet unborn knew his name.

In the end, Mezes' otherwise exemplary service was marred by one unpleasant gap: the 15 minutes or so we waited for desserts. Still, I'd rather wait at the end of a meal than in the middle, especially for a splendid semolina cake soaked with lemon syrup and a pleasant galaktobouriko -- chilled custard wrapped with phyllo and bathed in a light cinnamon syrup. To finish, the more sober among us indulged in coffee, mocha, and espresso, while Todd and I, still desirous of intoxicating potions, shared a splendid mavrodaphne, a crisp, silky, gorgeously fruity port wine from Patras that, like many things at Mezes, both of us can highly, highly recommend.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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