Feta (Not Quite) Accompli

Our second meal isn't as dazzling as our first at a new Greek eatery

"I haven't had a Greek meal since I moved to San Francisco," I said to Robert as we drove toward dinner at Estia, a new Greek place on Grant. Fifteen years ago, I explained to him, a very good and kinda pricey Greek restaurant called Periyali opened in New York, and it became one of my favorite eateries there. And last year Costas Spiliadis opened a branch in New York of his fabulously successful (and fabulously expensive) Estatoria Milos, based in Montreal, which specializes in fresh fish, grilled and slicked with good green olive oil and sprinkled with a few fresh herbs, where "I had the single most expensive piece of charcoal-broiled fish I've ever had in my life. I think it was $60. Still, it deserved a chorus of 'I loves you, Porgy'! There are a whole bunch of copycat Greek fish places in New York now."

"I had one of the most expensive meals of my life at Kokkari," Robert said, "but it was worth it: perfect fried smelts, spectacular tzatziki, very good moussaka and lamb. And they have a great wine list."

Our appetites sufficiently awakened, we walked into Estia's charming small storefront and were greeted by a modest but encouraging display of whole fish packed in crushed ice at the door. I liked the fresh décor very much, especially the sky-blue painted ceiling and the multicolored marble tabletops, unobscured by cloth. The design made subtle allusions to Greece (notably in a series of highly colored watercolors of white cliffs, striped awnings, bright sunlight) without falling prey to Forum of the Twelve Caesars clichés.

Greece Is the Word: Estia's fresh 
décor doesn't fall prey to clichés.
James Sanders
Greece Is the Word: Estia's fresh décor doesn't fall prey to clichés.

Location Info

Map

Estia

1224 Grant
San Francisco, CA 94133

Category: Restaurant > Greek

Region: North Beach/ Chinatown

Details

Tzatziki $3

Gigantes white beans $3

Fried smelts $8

Cretan dako $4

Whole charbroiled fish $20/pound

Rack of lamb $21

Fig-and-lavender ice cream $6

433-1433

Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. (Friday and Saturday until 11). Closed Monday.

Reservations accepted

Wheelchair accessible

Parking: difficult

Muni: 12, 15

Noise level: moderate

1224 Grant (at Columbus)

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We were impressed by the wine list, which featured more than 30 red wines and 20 whites and rosés from Greece (as well as a few wines from California), most of which we were unfamiliar with. Even better, 10 Greek reds and more than a dozen whites and rosés were available by the glass. I took a chance on a white called Gaia Thalasitis Assyrtiko, just because I liked the name, and it turned out, happily, to be golden and full of fruit. Robert, after consulting with a jovial, friendly staffer, chose another, drier white called Gaia Notios Rhothitis-Moshofilero -- most pleasant. The patient wine consultant turned out to be one of the two owners -- we're not sure whether it was Spiros or Taki Kaloterias, brothers who ran a pizza parlor called Viva Pizza in the same space before realizing their lifelong dream of opening their own Greek restaurant (they moved Viva Pizza next door). When I complimented him on the décor, he said, "We got a decorator!"

And we were impressed by the cold appetizer tray, laden with more than a dozen small plates full of olives, marinated cheese, sausages, stuffed vegetables, and the traditional creamy Greek salads. But we chose only one, taramasalata, because we'd gone a little nuts with the hot appetizers: deep-fried smelts, souvlaki served with tzatziki, and an additional starter called Cretan dako, further explained as Cretan bruschetta. The tarama wasn't fishy enough, and betrayed little color from the orange carp roe that usually turns the spread slightly pink. The smelts were delightful, however, tiny crisp whole fish that I preferred sprinkled with lemon juice rather than dipped in the accompanying skordalia, a potato-and-garlic paste that I found insufficiently garlicky. The souvlaki, grilled cubes of pork, were daringly rare, so much so that Robert was taken aback, but I was undaunted, swishing the mildly gamy bits of meat through the yogurt, cucumber, dill, and garlic sauce, which was sufficiently garlicky, even for me. But the surprise was the rustic dako, big crunchy whole wheat rusks rubbed with tomato, soaked in olive oil, and sprinkled with pungent shaved manouri goat's cheese and fresh wild oregano. It tasted like something a shepherd would eat for his lunch, crusty and genuine and simple and good.

Robert had chosen the fresh sea bream imported from Greece (known in France as daurade) for his main course. It came to the table whole, glistening with oil and dusted with chopped parsley and oregano, and was nicely filleted tableside, leaving a heap of soft, succulent white flakes of fish that didn't taste particularly charbroiled (as the menu said), but were nonetheless tasty and easy to eat. (And at $20 a pound, the dish came to $21.25 -- a lot easier to take than my fat little $60 porgy.) My seftalies were, I thought, the best thing we'd had in a meal full of surprises: freshly made patties of spiced, roughly ground beef and lamb, wrapped in caul fat and grilled until the fat melted luxuriously into the meat. Mmmmm -- and nicely sided with well-cooked roast potatoes and toothy chard.

We were both entranced by the easy but exquisite dessert that we shared: a fragrant fig-and-lavender ice cream, made specially for Estia, topped with chopped almonds and a few brandied cherries. We exited the place triumphant, feeling that we'd dined as well as any of those gods and goddesses fooling around up on Mount Olympus (or paying quite a bit more for the privilege at Milos and Kokkari).

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