"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.
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).
So it was with a sense of assurance that I invited my high school boyfriend Stanley and his girlfriend Carol, in town from Chicago for the holidays, to join my parents and me for dinner at Estia the night after Christmas. Chicago has a famous Greektown, but I knew that the dinner Robert and I had had was equal to or better than anything I'd eaten in that neighborhood. Everybody liked the pretty room -- and the bottle of Gaia Agiorgitiko, a soft and very drinkable red that I picked with the aid of a helpful little booklet Estia had printed up called "The Grape Lexicon of Greece." Choosing what to eat from the menu and the big tray of small plates felt festive and fun. (I was saddened not to find the seftalies on the menu. "We took it off," the server told me. "People just weren't ordering it.")
The festive feeling continued through the starters: We liked the gigantes (large white beans cooked with bits of carrots and onions), the vinegary pickled eggplant, the excellent tzatziki, the little fresh beef sausages known as sutzukakia. And it's always fun to see the leaping fire when the server flames the salty casseri sheep- and goat's-milk cheese with a bit of brandy tableside, which turns into the perfect grilled cheese sandwich, without the bread: Called saganiki, it's crusty outside, gooey within. Here she also flamed some fat pork sausages that carried the mild flavor of orange rind. The sweet young server said "Opa!" as the fire roared toward the ceiling, though without much enthusiasm.
And it was without much enthusiasm, alas, that we ate our way through much of the menu. I only really liked the plate of rosy grilled lamb chops, a full rack cut into eight chops and served with the same potatoes and greens I'd enjoyed with my seftalies; and the big square of moussaka, layers of eggplant, potatoes, and minced lamb and beef topped with a soft pillow of béchamel sauce, scented with cinnamon and nutmeg. But even these seemed familiar, much less exciting than the grilled daurade and seftalies of the previous meal. My mother, suffering with a cold that was making its way around the family, had begun with a disappointing cup of avgolemono soup, missing the sharp tang of lemon that is its principal thrill: It tasted like Campbell's chicken soup with rice. She followed it with a casserole of baked lamb shank with orzo, pleasant but characterless. (Where were the clean, true flavors I'd enjoyed in the dako, the smelts, the tzatziki?) My plate of dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) and the little flaky pastries called tiropita (stuffed with feta) and spanikopita (spinach and feta) were just OK. The gyros combo -- chosen, unfortunately, by Carol, a Charlotte Rampling look-alike whose opinion of my taste (Stanley: good; dinner: not so good) was falling fast -- was something of a travesty: The meats tasted commercial and processed, the "chicken" strips especially spongy and unpleasant.
Even the desserts failed to impress. I still liked the ice cream, but the rice pudding was overly perfumed by its rose petal jam, and the galactobureko (custard-filled pastry) and baklava, though perfectly fine, couldn't save the meal. We all loved the yogurt layered with nuts; my mother assumed that the restaurant made it, but it turned out to be good old Total, my favorite, indeed imported from Greece but also available at Trader Joe's and Andronico's.
Small, faintly gritty cups of Greek coffee sent us out into the misty night mildly dispirited. Carol and Stanley walked us to our car, parked in the city lot on Vallejo, whose spaces are enlivened with stenciled fortune cookie phrases. We wanted to show Stanley that our stall's fortune was "Friends long absent are coming back to you."
As I drove my parents home, my mother summed the evening up: "The company," she said, "was better than the food."