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Hits and Myths 

A fancy Greek restaurant explodes our expectations of cheap, unmemorable fare

Wednesday, May 5 2004
I've never been to Greece, though I made a concerted effort one year when I was 16 and applied to a drama school in Delphi for a summer session. I think I was attracted as much to an imagined landscape of a brilliant white, rocky seacoast and bright blue crystalline sea as I was to the idea of learning about stagecraft at the source -- and I didn't know much about Greek food then, either. My parents had spent an adventurous six weeks Greek island-hopping, taking boats from port to port as the spirit moved them, and I did savor their stories of charcoal-broiled lamb (my father's favorite meat) and fish pulled from the sea and grilled with a slick of olive oil (the province of my mother). Olive trees figured heavily in my mental picture of the country, with bent-over, black-clad crones leading donkeys on paths under the gray-green trees laden with fruit. I thought the olives would be black.

World events intervened, and I never got to go to that school in Delphi; I think my father was somewhat relieved, because the first sentence I had learned to speak in my Greek language extension course was, "I like to swim in the moonlight." I spent most of that summer on a small island off the coast of Yugoslavia, where the water was indeed bright blue and so crystalline that I could look down to depths unseen by me before or since. I ate, happily, raznici (grilled pork), cevapcici (fresh pork sausages), grilled fresh fish, vats of tomato-and-onion salad, and the wonderful gnocchi made by my hostess, who was rightly proud of her Italian cooking skills. The olives on the gnarled, gray-green trees were green themselves, as was the delicious olive oil made from them.

As a result, my knowledge of Greek cooking has come from myriad little Greek restaurants, mostly in New York (where once upon a time every coffee shop was owned by Greeks and featured moussaka and tzatziki along with burgers and fries) and London (where, in an otherwise unmemorable spot, a college roommate and I once had a dish of yogurt with honey so sublime that she, never a gourmand, still speaks of it in hallowed tones), and mostly inexpensive (not to say dirt cheap). Until fairly recently, I didn't expect brilliant cooking in Greek restaurants. In New York, there was an anomaly in the mid-'80s, a superb and ambitious spot called Periyali, and later a rash of fresh-fish-weighed-by-the-pound-and-grilled-at-astonishing-prices places, inspired by a famous Montreal restaurateur named Milos (who recently turned down an offer to join Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, and Gray Kunz at the Time Warner Center in favor of opening an outpost in Athens).

More than once my friend Robert has raved about Kokkari, a fancy and pricey Greek restaurant near the San Francisco waterfront. He described one of his favorite dishes there, fried smelts, with such poetic fervor that I had to try it.

I don't know quite what I expected the place to look like -- I guess I had some romantic, slightly raffish image in mind (Robert had said it was "down by the piers") that included hokey draped fishing nets and white-plastered walls. Instead I found a formal, baronial interior (the front room, where we were seated, features a huge carved sandstone fireplace that would be at home in a European castle) that could serve as the setting for any kind of upscale eatery. The other main decorative element is a towering, backlit display of liquor bottles behind the bustling bar, a noisy locus that proved problematic on both my visits.

Jack and I were seated at a table for two optimistically separated from the bar area by a low side table. It was a Friday night, early, and people who'd been happily released from their labors in the many office towers in the neighborhood ebbed and flowed around us. There were more than a dozen starters, listed as "mezethes" on the menu, and though I knew we'd get the smelts (marithes tiganites) it was hard making additional choices. Everything sounded enticing.

The smelts were all Robert had said they were, and then some. I was dazzled by their sheer quantity: numbers of them, stacked up like kindling, sprinkled with chopped parsley. There was more than enough for a shared appetizer or even a light main course. (The portion size was surprising, given the discreet quantity -- three -- of the nice but not striking dolmathes that Jack ordered, the classic grape-leaf logs stuffed with chopped meat, rice, currants, and pine nuts.) The first smelt I ate went down like a french fry, and I impetuously asked for an order of tzatziki, thinking it would make a fine foil for the crisp fish, which melted away when I bit into its tempuralike coating. The creamy tzatziki, dizzy with garlic, was superb (and I was pleased with the thick, cornmeal-dusted grilled pita that came with it, so unlike the thin, leathery stuff you often get). We liked the tender calamari that tasted of the grill and came served on a bed of black-eyed peas with a dab of almond-and-tomato romesco sauce.

Jack thought the rock shrimp and scallops on his pilafi me thalassina (saffron risotto that also came with firm chunks of rabbit, a dish reminiscent of paella) were undercooked (he's used to springier shellfish); I felt they were cooked to current, medium-rare fashion. (Jack made cheerful reference to his Irish-American upbringing: "What can we have for dinner that won't take long to prepare or eat? Macaroni and cheese! Canned baked beans!") I was unhappier with my kokinisto me manasta, described as an aromatic braised lamb shank over orzo with Myzithra (a tangy grating cheese): The lamb, which shredded at the touch of my fork, had been cooked until it was so dry that it turned gummy and unpleasant in the mouth.

Our fancily plated desserts of rice pudding with strawberry-rhubarb sauce and galactbureko (phyllo cigars stuffed with custard and garnished with roasted pineapple) left a sweet taste, however, so I felt emboldened to ask my parents to have dinner at Kokkari with me. My sister, who'd finished up the smelts I'd brought back, invited herself along, and I couldn't say no.

I'd asked for a table as far away from the bar as possible, even though we were there midweek, and was disappointed to be seated right next to the one Jack and I had endured. (There are two quieter spaces, a large room containing the open kitchen and a booth-lined corridor that connects the bar room and the kitchen room.) I expressed my dismay to the hostesses, who sweetly volunteered to lower the beat-heavy music, which helped a lot. This time our meal was nearly flawless. All the mezethes were brilliant: soutzoukia, two plump, flattened grilled meatballs flavored with oregano and orange, with a compulsively edible tomato-pepper compote; revithokeftethes, cakes made of chickpeas and feta, accompanied by sliced cucumbers dressed with yogurt and mint; creamy taramosalata, a dip colored pale pink with carp roe; and the best gigantes I've ever had, giant white beans baked in tomato sauce and drizzled with bright green herbed feta. My mother had the traditional avgolemono, but it was untraditionally good -- a perfectly balanced rendition of the egg-lemon soup laden with an extravagance of shredded chicken.

Our luck held with the main courses (kirio piato): wood-scented oven-roasted quails for my mom, with chickpeas, feta, and a moist dressing of sun-dried tomatoes; simple grilled lamb chops in a lemon-oregano vinaigrette with roasted potatoes that utterly thrilled my father, so much so that he wished we'd tried the grilled lamb riblets, arnisia plevrakia, as a starter. "Next time," he said. My sister was so enthralled with her roasted halibut, a golden-crusted chunk resting on verdant sautéed spinach, surrounded by clams and mussels in a bit of saffron broth, that she said it was one of the best fish she'd ever had (and this just a couple of weeks after enjoying very good, very fresh fish in Hawaii). Again I felt I had the only disappointing dish -- a grilled whole striped bass, nicely flavored but unexciting, sided by an uncharacteristically rustic heap of braised greens, again well flavored, but mostly rainbow chard and a bit coarse. I thought $34 was pushing it.

The kitchen got only one of the three desserts we'd ordered right on the first go-round, and I had to leave for a previous engagement, so I tasted several treats on the cookie plate -- excellent baklava, a sesame wafer, and dreamy purple Turkish delight that tasted like tamarind. My sister rhapsodized later about the sweets I'd missed: a yogurt panna cotta whose strawberry sauce and strawberry sorbet actually tasted like strawberries, and her choice, the house-made yogurt served in three quenelles. She told me it was dense and rich, with a heady flavor akin to cheese, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. "I was so happy I ordered it," she said. "I told the waiter I could eat it every day!"

I could eat Kokkari's mezethes, well, frequently. On my next visit I intend to stick to the starters and cover the table with them.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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