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Jack thought the rock shrimp and scallops on his pilafi me thalassina (saffron risotto that also came with firm chunks of rabbit, a dish reminiscent of paella) were undercooked (he's used to springier shellfish); I felt they were cooked to current, medium-rare fashion. (Jack made cheerful reference to his Irish-American upbringing: "What can we have for dinner that won't take long to prepare or eat? Macaroni and cheese! Canned baked beans!") I was unhappier with my kokinisto me manasta, described as an aromatic braised lamb shank over orzo with Myzithra (a tangy grating cheese): The lamb, which shredded at the touch of my fork, had been cooked until it was so dry that it turned gummy and unpleasant in the mouth.
Our fancily plated desserts of rice pudding with strawberry-rhubarb sauce and galactbureko (phyllo cigars stuffed with custard and garnished with roasted pineapple) left a sweet taste, however, so I felt emboldened to ask my parents to have dinner at Kokkari with me. My sister, who'd finished up the smelts I'd brought back, invited herself along, and I couldn't say no.
San Francisco, CA 94111
Fried smelts $6.50
Roasted quails $22.95
Grilled lamb chops $27.95
Roasted halibut $21.95
Homemade yogurt $8
Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Bar menu Monday through Friday from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Open for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday until 11 p.m., Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Parking: difficult during day, easier at night, valet $8
Muni: 1, 10, 12
Noise level: high
I'd asked for a table as far away from the bar as possible, even though we were there midweek, and was disappointed to be seated right next to the one Jack and I had endured. (There are two quieter spaces, a large room containing the open kitchen and a booth-lined corridor that connects the bar room and the kitchen room.) I expressed my dismay to the hostesses, who sweetly volunteered to lower the beat-heavy music, which helped a lot. This time our meal was nearly flawless. All the mezethes were brilliant: soutzoukia, two plump, flattened grilled meatballs flavored with oregano and orange, with a compulsively edible tomato-pepper compote; revithokeftethes, cakes made of chickpeas and feta, accompanied by sliced cucumbers dressed with yogurt and mint; creamy taramosalata, a dip colored pale pink with carp roe; and the best gigantes I've ever had, giant white beans baked in tomato sauce and drizzled with bright green herbed feta. My mother had the traditional avgolemono, but it was untraditionally good -- a perfectly balanced rendition of the egg-lemon soup laden with an extravagance of shredded chicken.
Our luck held with the main courses (kirio piato): wood-scented oven-roasted quails for my mom, with chickpeas, feta, and a moist dressing of sun-dried tomatoes; simple grilled lamb chops in a lemon-oregano vinaigrette with roasted potatoes that utterly thrilled my father, so much so that he wished we'd tried the grilled lamb riblets, arnisia plevrakia, as a starter. "Next time," he said. My sister was so enthralled with her roasted halibut, a golden-crusted chunk resting on verdant sautéed spinach, surrounded by clams and mussels in a bit of saffron broth, that she said it was one of the best fish she'd ever had (and this just a couple of weeks after enjoying very good, very fresh fish in Hawaii). Again I felt I had the only disappointing dish -- a grilled whole striped bass, nicely flavored but unexciting, sided by an uncharacteristically rustic heap of braised greens, again well flavored, but mostly rainbow chard and a bit coarse. I thought $34 was pushing it.
The kitchen got only one of the three desserts we'd ordered right on the first go-round, and I had to leave for a previous engagement, so I tasted several treats on the cookie plate -- excellent baklava, a sesame wafer, and dreamy purple Turkish delight that tasted like tamarind. My sister rhapsodized later about the sweets I'd missed: a yogurt panna cotta whose strawberry sauce and strawberry sorbet actually tasted like strawberries, and her choice, the house-made yogurt served in three quenelles. She told me it was dense and rich, with a heady flavor akin to cheese, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with chopped walnuts. "I was so happy I ordered it," she said. "I told the waiter I could eat it every day!"
I could eat Kokkari's mezethes, well, frequently. On my next visit I intend to stick to the starters and cover the table with them.
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