Greek restaurants are as much of an anomaly in San Francisco as Polish diners and rib joints -- where have you gone, Jackie & Ari's Carousel? -- but O Mythos, a three-month-old Van Ness Avenue taverna, is doing its best to bring a little bit of Chicago (not to mention Thessaloniki) to the Pacific Rim. Its flower-boxed, gold-trimmed entranceway is done up in a dazzling 38th-parallel azure also discernible in the paint job of the century-old Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral across the street. In the front window a miniature Diana reclines on a divan, welcoming all passers-by. Just inside is a friendly, four-seat wine bar ideal for single diners; beyond is a dining area decorated in the same sun-baked white and deep Aegean blue of the Greek flag. To the right is a small stage, and bisecting the wall-to-wall carpeting is an expanse of hardwood flooring for dancing (both line and belly) once the proper permits come through. (Recorded Greek folk-pop takes up the slack in the interim.) At the far end of the room is the inevitable Parthenon mural; watercolors depicting everyday life in Greece dominate the otherwise trim, simple décor.
Among our party was a discerning Greek-American with vivid memories of family reunions and ample meals and a trip or two to the old country. O Mythos' prevalent warmth -- it's family owned and operated -- inspired at least a few nostalgic moments. One reason is that the place gives you the feeling you're having supper in somebody's home instead of in some restaurant (at least until the check comes). Adding to the ambience is the number of families and friends relaxing after a long and arduous day. Mostly, though, O Mythos is a pleasant alternative to both the 21st-century San Francisco terra-cotta dining experience and the California-fusion dynamic of, say, Kokkari, the chichi Greek spot downtown. And if you order carefully, you can enjoy a tasty and comforting meal into the bargain.
Because it must be noted that the menu has its pitfalls. O Mythos isn't the kind of eatery where they snatch something out of the ocean and grill it over mesquite with bundles of forested herbs; fresh food is not the kitchen's forte. Just about everything is fried, stewed, or ground up and mixed with other stuff and cooked awhile. Keftedakia, for instance, are mint-seasoned meatballs that don't quite survive their own breading and deep-frying. Moshari souvlaki -- veal kebabs -- are grilled until tough, dry, and chewy. Kota Mediterranean is a perfectly juicy roasted chicken without a whole lot of flavor. One would think a Greek restaurant would excel at lamb dishes, but O Mythos' roast leg of lamb is nothing more than several thin slices of overcooked, unflavored shoe leather. And the bakaliaros, traditional though it may be, is worth avoiding: Imagine fillets of exceedingly salty salt cod dipped in a heavy batter, deep-fried to the cumbersome stage, and served with mashed potatoes. Some sort of saucing might have improved these dishes somewhat.
On the positive side there's a complimentary meal-opener of smoked salmon with lemon and black pepper, one of the city's more generous amuse-bouches, which arrives at the table with a basket of warm, toasty, mildly sweet bread. Then there's avgolemono, among the best lemon-chicken soups I've tasted: light yet creamy, with chunks of moist chicken and tender rice jazzed up with a hint of citrus. Another fine starter is the htapodi sharas, warm chunks of plump, meaty, freshly grilled octopus served in a tangy lemon/olive oil/oregano sauce. An admirable spanakopita is also among the appetizers, a pungent mixture of spinach, onions, dill, parsley, eggs, and feta cheese wrapped up in an (unfortunately tough) casing of phyllo dough. In addition there's a dense, robust grilled sausage flecked with pepper and other spices, and of course saganiki, the flaming-cheese extravaganza of yore. Best eaten immediately -- it tends to get oily as it cools -- it's bubbly, tangy, sharp, and salty all at once, even if our waitress' "Ho-paaa!" was a bit sheepish.
The easiest way to try out a variety of appetizers is to order the krio piato pikilia, a platter of five different noshes: izatziki, a tart, refreshing yogurt-dill-cucumber dip; taramosalata, an overly mild purée of lemon, olive oil, and carp roe; melintzanosalata, an earthy, chunky eggplant-garlic spread with a touch of mint; dolmadakia, a rather basic example of the stuffed-grape-leaf genre; scordalia, a smooth, extremely garlicky variation on the mashed potatoes that come with the fried salt cod; and a bonus nibble of light, soufflélike whipped feta that's mighty tasty on triangles of warm, soft pita bread.
My favorite entree is the pastitsio, a popular comfort-food standby in many a Greek household and a close cousin to lasagna, moussaka, and good old mac and cheese. Al dente ziti is layered with ground beef seasoned with onion, garlic, and cinnamon, while a nutmeg-infused béchamel sauce provides the crowning custardy touch. Gyros -- at O Mythos, a flat, sausagelike concoction of minced lamb and beef -- is another tasty main course, all smooth, supple texture and rich, herbaceous flavor. The classic garides a la Santorini, meanwhile, combines plump prawns with tangy feta and thick tomato sauce into a wholly satisfying, nicely balanced casserole. All entrees come with appetizing rice pilaf; mushy carrots; overcooked, olive-drab green peas; incredibly tasty boiled potatoes saturated with lemony flavor; and a small salad of tomatoes, black olives, red onion, green pepper, a chunk of feta, and shredded lettuce. Cruets of oil and vinegar rest nearby so you can mix your own dressing at the table -- a homey touch.
For dessert there are three items. The disappointingly tough, sodden baklava has none of the crunchy, airy, nuts 'n' honey transcendence of the genuine article. Kataifi, a variation on the aforementioned baklava, sports an additional wrapping of shredded wheat, giving it a boring, haylike texture. But the marvelous creamy, cool rice pudding bears a trace of lemon and cinnamon, making it a most satisfying meal-closer.
The wine list offers 18 Greek choices (eight available by the glass), including retsina, the famously intense white with its characteristic hint of pine resin, and Mavrodaphni, a sweet, delicious dessert wine from the Peloponnese. Another Peloponnesian wine, Gaia Notios-St. George from Nemea, is deep red, full-bodied, soft on the palate, and a fine complement to the gyros. There are also almost a dozen local vintages -- one, the Sutter white zin, available by the glass -- and two unexciting Greek lagers, Mythos and Aris. No full liquor license means no ouzo, Greece's oddly compelling contribution to the Mediterranean's wide array of licorice-flavored aperitifs. Even without it, though, you just might be able to convince yourself you're enjoying a snack within spitting distance of the Ionian Sea -- or at least Lake Michigan.