There are nights when you aren't looking for the hippest, most see-and-be-seen restaurant in town. First dates. Clandestine affairs. Old friends catching up over a glass of wine. Orexi, the Greek joint that opened last month in a former Round Table Pizza on West Portal's main drag, probably isn't going to win any national awards or change the way you think about food. But the dining room is classy and comfortable, the food is familiar and dependable, and the waitstaff treats you with the kind of respectful deference that you don't find very often in the Mission. Some nights, that's all you need.
The cuisine isn't Cal-Mediterranean with all kinds of crazy techniques and ingredients thrown in, nor is it the knockoff food you find mediocre renditions of in mall food courts. This is authentic Greek cuisine — the name "Orexi" means "appetite" in Greek — and part of a realized dream of Greek-American owners John and Effie Loufas, who have opened their first restaurant in the neighborhood where they've lived for the past 20 years. It also fills a niche in a town with many Mediterranean restaurants, but very few serve menus like this, full of dishes that have been passed down from the old country, with nary a fried calamari or tired spinach pie in sight.
Most of the menu is made up of shareable small plates. Start with house-made pita, fluffy and still warm from the oven, and a few of the house-made dips. There are four in all; the best is taramosalata, a smooth, coral-colored puree made from fish roe, bread crumbs, olive oil and lemon. When done poorly, it's both too salty and too fishy. Here, the kitchen achieves just the right meld of creamy, salty, fishy flavor with only a hint of ocean brine.
Another perfectly balanced appetizer is the lamb riblets, quite possibly the best thing on the menu, with meat so tender it falls off the bone just by looking at it, and a flavor that has a whisper of gaminess from the lamb and char from the fire. There's not a ton of meat on these little rib ends — if you want a full-on lamb situation, go with the tender lamb chop entrée — but the meat is so well-seasoned and deftly cooked that every bite is a pleasure.
Even appetizers that didn't impress were perfectly decent. The avgolemono soup, a simple mixture of lemon, chicken broth, rice, and egg yolks, has the right thickness of texture but needed a bigger hit of lemon to brighten it up. Still, outside the fog was rushing down the street in a wet drizzle and the warm soup was fortifying against the elements. A Greek salad had ripe tomatoes, crispy cucumber, and a slab of feta on top, and though the dressing could have used more tang, the freshness of the produce saved it.
The biggest disappointment was the grilled octopus — the bigger slices were a touch too rubbery, not tenderized enough, though the smaller bits were tender enough to cut with a knife — especially considering the calamari, stewed in a tomato-y sauce and served with charred bread, was cooked perfectly. Giant white beans in tomato sauce were baked to a brisk al dente but fairly dull overall, and even a dust of feta on top couldn't hide the fact that the dish desperately needed salt.
Entrées were duly authentic. The Moussaka had a fantastically custardy topping, over slices of stewed eggplant and ground lamb that had been cooked with just enough cinnamon and allspice to taste exactly like a version a Greek grandmother might make. Orexi's signature entrée is rotisserie chicken, a meaty half-bird with a crispy skin, seasoned with oregano and spices. The greens it was served with were oversalted, and the potatoes were lackluster, but the chicken's herb marinade permeated the juicy meat inside for a satisfying entrée despite the sides' pitfalls.
The room décor is more sophisticated than its West Portal location may lead you to expect. A cluster of olive trees in planters sits outside the front door, visible through the large picture window. Tables are made of wood polished until you can almost see your reflection, and a wall of big, wrought-iron mirrors opens up the narrow space. Navy walls are an interesting choice for such a small room, but a honeycomb-like light sculpture along one wall imparts a welcoming warm glow, enhanced by the candlelight at every table. Everyone looks good in that light. It really is a fine place to bring a date, especially if you can impress them with your knowledge of the extensive Greek wine list (there are also California wines, for those who aren't familiar).
The only concession to the space's former life as a Round Table is the two pizzas on the menu — one with Greek sausage, the other vegetarian with an oregano-pesto base. It's tasty pizza, with a chewy thin crust and tangy tomato sauce, and while it's probably not the best you'll ever have and not even the best in town, it's good enough. Sometimes good enough can be great.