Toga Party

O Mythos

Among the most treasured items in my personal matchbook collection is a souvenir from the Greek Islands, one of Chicago's more popular Greektown eateries. Etched against a blue background is a drawing of a waiter setting fire to a slab of cheese, an exclamatory "Ho-paaa!" emerging from his mouth like some Hellenic Beetle Bailey- ism. Once I saw the matchbook, I knew I had to order a platter of that saganiki along with my grilled perch and ouzo and baklava -- and so did everyone else in the joint, which is why dinner was punctuated with miniature bonfires and repeated cries of "Ho-paaa!" on top of the distant wail of a bouzouki and the continual happy clinking of glassware. That matchbook exemplifies everything I love about the vivid glories of Greek cookery. I've wanted to hit Corfu ever since I read the collected works of Gerald Durrell in college, but earlier than that I was tempted eastward by the spicy creations served at a local taverna -- the first "weird" (i.e., non-pizza) grub I really liked -- and by my older siblings' highly experimental but always delicious attempts at baklava.

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.

Details

Saganiki $9

Avgolemono $4

Htapodi sharas $10

Garides a la Santorini $16

Pastitsio $16

Rice pudding $4.50

Gaia Notios-St. George $6/glass, $25/bottle

749-0341

Dinner served nightly from 5 to 11 p.m.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 45, 47, 49, 76

Noise level: gregarious but unobtrusive

2424 Van Ness (at Green)

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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.

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