No wonder. The fare was aromatic, rustic and enticing, and the decor Mediterranean chic. There were linen-lined tables, oversized urns of fresh flowers and an open kitchen with a spit turning lamb and chickens in a huge wood-burning fireplace. The uniformed staff members were friendly and knowledgeable, and the wine list approachable.
A reservation was necessary on Monday evening, and on every other night of the week. Even in these lean times, Evvia, which reopened quickly after a fire last fall, is as wildly popular as it has been for the past 15 years.
The food is well-balanced too. Many Greek restaurants are guilty of the over-saltiness that comes from feta, olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes, sausages, anchovies and herb blends. At Evvia, the saltiness — while there — does not overwhelm any dish. Rather, it complements and draws flavors out.
In all, there's not much to complain about with Evvia, save for the high-decibel noise level. Yet the hubbub is a decidedly happy chatter amongst the mixed crowd of business-expense diners, families and twosomes in for a romantic dinner.
(Evvia's sister restaurant, Kokkari, is an equally popular San Francisco location tucked away in Jackson Square, on the northern waterfront. Same ownership with essentially the same menu.)
One evening, we were stuck in knotted traffic on U.S. 101 and called Evvia to ask if they would hold our reservation. No problem, I was told: The table would be ready when we arrived. That's the kind of attention that ensures repeat business.
After we were seated, crusty bread arrived at the table right away. Olive oil was poured, and the pleasurable business of deciding which tempting menu selections to order soothed our jangled urban nerves.
Starters were just the right-sized portions, enough to encourage the appetite and pique the taste buds. Spanakotiropita ($8.75) was buttery golden-brown phyllo pastry stuffed with braised spinach, feta cheese and herbs. It was like a flaky, healthful mini spinach-and-cheese pie.
In anginares souvlaki ($12), the flavors of skewered and grilled chunks of artichoke and eggplant were enhanced by a creamy and slightly sour Greek yogurt.
The crispy zucchini cakes, kolokithokeftethes ($8.75), were served with slices of cucumber and skordalia (a thick potato and garlic sauce). Since zucchini has little flavor, the cakes were merely the vehicle for the skordalia, which was silky and tangy. Gigantes ($7.50) were giant baked organic white beans with tomatoes, leeks and herbed feta. Served in a mini tureen, this was a hot and hearty little vegetable stew.
Roasted butternut squash ($6.50) with brown sage butter was good, but lacked the depth of flavor of other appetizers.
Of the entrees, I still cannot decide which was my favorite. The kotopoulo ($23.75), accented with lemon and oregano, was an intoxicatingly aromatic rotisserie chicken. The scents didn't just waft from the plate; they made a dramatic and alluring statement of their own. It would be inconceivable not to love this dish.
The smoked half chicken was bronzed on the outside, juicy and succulent on the inside. The flavors were marvelous. The chicken came with olive oil-basted roasted heirloom squash and potatoes that had benefitted from drippings of the rotisserie meat.
The mesquite-grilled rib-cut lamb chops, arnisia paidakia ($31), also came with olive oil-roasted potatoes. The meat was perfectly pink, not bloody on the inside — exactly as I had ordered it. The lamb was sweet, fragrant, slightly smoky, rich and simply irresistible.
Katsiki yiouvetsi ($26.75) was tender, moist braised goat. Goat is relatively low in fat, so it needs to be marinated or basted while cooking to preserve its delicate flavors. Evvia's version was served in a medley of roasted tomatoes, green beans, Greek olives, orzo and herbed feta.
Another evening, we ordered dorade ($32), which was one of the three whole-fish specials offered daily. The dorade had been mesquite-grilled and basted with lemon-oregano vinaigrette. Braised greens and potatoes accompanied.
Dorade is small, tender Mediterranean white fish with rich, meaty, succulent flavors. It is the classic fish of Marseille's bouillabaisse. Due to overfishing, the specimen on our plate was not wild but came from a natural-environment aqua farm. No matter; the flavors were delicious. Note: As with many Mediterranean fish, there was an abundance of small bones. Eat with caution.
Moussaka ($19.75), a deep-dished baked casserole with eggplant, lamb ragout and potatoes, was topped with a rich yogurt bechamel. I couldn't eat it all. There had to have been a half-pound of ground lamb layered with the vegetables. The yogurt bechamel added a milkiness and slight acidity that harmonized nicely.
The eclectic wine list encompassed mostly Mediterranean wines from Greece, Italy, France and Spain, along with a large selection of West Coast wines. Most red wines and higher-acid whites work best with this kind of hearty fare. Excellent bottles were to be had in the $40 to $80 range with a few exceptional wines priced accordingly. Corkage fee is $20 per bottle, waived with the purchase of any 750-ml bottle.
Desserts were worth saving room for. I lapped up the yiaourti me meli ($7.25), which was homemade yogurt topped with walnuts and Medjool dates, all drizzled with honey. The arborio rice pudding, rizogalo ($8), with honey-roasted peaches, and sprinkled with cinnamon, was as good as rice pudding gets.
Galaktoboureko ($8.25) was golden phyllo wrapped around a vanilla bean-semolina custard, ideal with the pistachio ice cream. Bougatsa ($8), phyllo again, this time wrapped around warm ricotta cheese dotted with diced Granny Smith apples and dulce de leche ice cream.
General manager Panos Gogonas has been with the company since inception. He and chef Mario Ortega keep Evvia an exciting restaurant venue with cordial hospitality and food that is dynamic, earthy and sweet-scented.
Evvia doesn't cater to the Greek gods, but its patrons are treated as such.
420 Emerson St.
Hours: Lunch: Weekdays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Thurs. 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri. 5:30-11 p.m.; Sat. 5-11 p.m.; Sun. 5:30-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: valet and city lots
Alcohol: full bar
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: no
Noise level: loud
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent