A&E

Going Greek

It’s hit or miss at Opa! in downtown Palo Alto

"How's your food?" someone at your table asks.

"It's pretty good," you reply. "How's yours?"

"It's pretty good."

That's how the conversation goes for nearly every dish at Opa! Authentic Greek Cuisine in downtown Palo Alto. Everything is pretty good, but not much is extraordinary.

This mini-chain of six Bay Area restaurants (and two more on the way) comes from co-owners Angelo Heropoulos and Molly Adams. Heropoulos grew up in a large Greek family for whom meals were a focal point. He wanted to bring the conviviality of those dinners to his restaurant.

"My vision was to give neighborhood communities a comfortable place that hit that sweet spot between casual and fine dining and offer people 100-percent-homemade foods," Heropoulos said.

He said he also wanted to keep it affordable. Most entrees hover in the mid-teens, and portions are generous. Opa! has raised prices just once since opening in 2008.

Wood and rock dominate the interior of the University Avenue space. Materials were inspired by villages in the central part of the Peloponnese. Look up to the ceiling, where splashes of pale blue, pink, and green paint resemble clouds. Then glance toward the bar where two big-screen TVs play the Giants game.

Within moments of sitting down, your server will arrive, smiling like a cheerleader on game day, to introduce herself and see if you'd like anything to drink. Visit a few times, and it becomes apparent that this friendliness was trained, and certain servers execute it better than others.

Some of the staff could use a lesson on the menu. When asked to explain retsina ($14), a Greek white wine mixed with pine resin, the waitress described it as a blend of various red grapes. When someone at the table pointed out that it was listed as a white wine, she acted surprised. "Oh, that's the one you meant?" Pause. "It's a sweeter wine." Nope, not even close. It's crisp and dry with a peculiar herbaceousness that's popular in Greece but relatively unknown outside it.

Later this year, Heropoulos said he will launch an intensive training program to school current and new employees on the menu and proper service. In addition to offering several red and white wines, including Greek varietals, Heropoulos sells his own wine called Christeni, named after his children.

As with any Greek meal, you'll want to begin with meze, a selection of hot and cold appetizers. Try the rustic zucchini cakes ($9.99). These fried patties don't taste much like zucchini but with their creamy interiors and crispy exteriors, it doesn't matter, especially after you give them a swipe through the accompanying sriracha-spiked yogurt. The yogurt, made in-house, is thick and luscious, without the sourness of store-bought versions. You'll see it in various iterations throughout the menu, and you should order it as often as possible.

Sit at the restaurant long enough, and you're bound to see the saganaki or "flaming cheese" ($9.99). You'll actually smell it before you see it -- a skillet sizzling with kasseri cheese that your server finishes tableside. She adds a splash of ouzo (Greek anise-flavored liquor) to the pan, lights a match, and shouts "Opa!" as the flames shoot up. The show ends with a squeeze of lemon. Scoop up the bubbling cheese and its toasty orange crust with plenty of pita.

This fluffy, white pita bread is the restaurant's own recipe baked fresh daily by a local bakery. You'll need it for the dips. Go with the skordalia ($6.99), a silky whipped potato puree with garlic. The melitzanosalata ($7.99) is more relish than dip with nearly just as many pieces of diced raw onion as there are roasted eggplant.

One trademark of a great Greek restaurant is how well they do the horiatiki, aka "Greek Village Salad" ($10.99). This one stays pretty classic, composed of feta, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, kalamata olives, red peppers and fresh oregano. Heropoulos insists it's lightly tossed with a Greek red wine vinegar dressing, but the vegetables tasted naked. The feta cheese on top is terrifically mild. Heropoulos sampled multiple varieties before choosing it. He uses a different, saltier version to crumble over French fries. Those Opa! Fries ($6.99) are cut from Kennebec potatoes, a favorite of chefs for frying. Crunchy and golden on the outside, they unfortunately suffer from a mealy interior at Opa!.

This same textural problem plagued the roasted potatoes that come with the psari psito sti skara, or Mediterranean seabass ($24.99). The fish is grilled and served whole, a challenge for those of us who struggle at deboning, but a safeguard for retaining moisture. According to the menu, it should have been dressed in the "Opa! vinaigrette," a combination of olive oil, lemon, fresh oregano from Greece, crushed garlic and parsley, but in reality, it didn't taste like anything until vigorously splashed with an accompanying lemon wedge.

Missteps detract from other entrees. A massive lamb shank, called kokinisto me manestra, ($23.99) served over orzo pasta, required a knife when it should be fork-tender. The moussaka ($18.99), a staple casserole of eggplant, ground lamb and beef, and potatoes, showed up lukewarm and tasted mainly of nutmeg.

The lemon chicken orzo ($14.99) fared better. It's one of several dishes at Opa! that unites classic Greek recipes with California flair. Heropoulos created it with his mother after she returned from Greece with the idea to add a lighter pasta dish to the menu. Pieces of grilled chicken breast surround creamy orzo with a honey-lemon yogurt sauce and more yogurt in the middle. It's more sweet than tangy but delivers a refreshing contrast between the cool dairy and the charred chicken.

For the traditional Greek taverna experience, there are gyros and souvlaki. The gyro

meat is a combination of lamb and beef, ground until super-fine and cooked on a rotating vertical spit. The meat is shaved into thin slices, which you can order in a pita sandwich ($10.99) or on a platter ($11.99) with tomatoes, onions, mint and tzatziki. The meat was moist but didn't have much taste. Instead, go with the beautifully charred pork souvlaki ($14.99) skewers. They were emboldened with oregano and that Opa! vinaigrette.

Phyllo dough rules many Greek pastries, including the ones here. The bougatsa ($7.99) is parcel of crispy phyllo filled with what tastes like cinnamon cream cheese made tangy by a bit of sautéed green apple. If only there weren't those streaks of raspberry goo and caramel decorating the plate. The loukoumades ($9.99), yeast doughnuts that look like roughly shaped doughnut holes, are warm but bready. You can order them one of several ways including with fruit and that addicting Greek yogurt. The only problem is you might end up eating the yogurt and ditching the doughnuts.

Opa! Authentic Greek Cuisine

140 University Ave., Palo Alto

650-391-9855

Opaauthenticgreek.com

Hours: Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Reservations: only parties of seven or more

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street and nearby lots

Takeout: yes

Catering: yes

Happy Hour: yes

Outdoor seating: no

Wheelchair access: yes

Noise level: quiet

Bathroom cleanliness: great

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