Monday, November 14, 2005

Evvia in Palo Alto: Greek food can be good

Jeffrey Steingarten says this about Greek Food, and is aversion to it, "I was also convinced that Greek cuisine was an oxymoron. Nations are like people. Some are good at cooking, while others have a talent for music or baseball or manufacturing VCRs. The Greeks are really good at both pre-Socratic philosophy and white sculpture. They have not been good cooks since the fifth century B.C., when Siracusa in Sicily was the gastronomic capital of the world. Typical of the Greeks' modern cuisine are feta cheese and retsina wine. Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things. The British go to Greece for the food, which says volumes to me. You would probably think twice before buying a Russian or Algerian television set. I had thought for 10 years before buying my last Greek meal."

Now, that is obviously a bit tongue in cheek, though everything he says is a bit tongue in cheek, but nonetheless, Greek food has been a bit of a mystery to me. I think of the general Mediterranean area, and know the Tzatziki and dolmas are from there, and that I've never had a Dolma that I liked, and I do like their use of citrus, but that was about it. Evvia, which is an upscale Greek restaurant in Palo Alto, CA gave me an idea of what good Greek food was capable of, and I'm very pleased with the results.

With 3 good friends who are at least moderate foodies, we all opted for the Family Style meal. I'll start from the beginning, and move my way through. It started with a bowl of Greek olives (the firm ones were excellent, though I found the slightly dried ones to be too strong in salt and overpowering flavor), and a plate of pikilia, which had a dolma for each, as well as a eggplant spread like a non-smoky babaganoush, tzatziki, and a tarmosalata, which was kind of a Greek salsa, with low acidity. It was served with thick, flavorful pita bread, that was leavened at least a bit. This was the first dolma that I ever enjoyed. The rice was perfectly cooked, with just a bit more texture than one of Asian decent would expect. The melitzanosalata which was the eggplant spread, and the tzatziki were both incredibly tasty, with their tzatziki being the best I've ever had. The yogurt was just the perfect amount of sourness, and the cut of the cucumber was paper thin, with just enough dill, but not too much like many people do. After we opened a bottle of Portuguese wine, which was light bodied, but complimented the lamb dishes very well, they brought out the rest of the appetizers. A fava bean paste which was deep fried, fire roasted octopus with lemon and oregano, and grilled lamb riblets, which were seasoned again with fresh oregano. The lamb was half fat, but this was not a bad thing. Just rich, succulent flavor with the crispness around the first bite, and a wonderful richness that consumed the mouth. The fried bean was good, though nothing to write home about. It was a fritter, of undescript means. The octopus was wonderful. The texture made you question if you were in fact eating octopus, though the flavor was spot on. It wasn't tough, but the teeth just cut through without effort. It was a smoky, citrus wonderment.

After the burst of flavor, they brought out a "classic Greek salad" called horiatiki. This was very well done. Crisp and light without too much oil, and bursting with crunch and flavor. The feta was lightly seasoned, and added a wonderful depth to the salad, which was comprised of thick cut chunks of cucumber, tomato, and thin shavings of red onion, red and green bell pepper, and feta crumbles with a few Greek olives tossed in.

Everyone picked their own main course. The two men both had kokinisto me manestra, which was a lamb osso bucco, and just fell off the bone. Judy had the Arnisia Paidakia, which was succulently grilled lamb chops (4 of them!), which I tried and were excellent. I had the moussaka. For those that don't know what moussaka is, it's a casserole with eggplant, lamb, potato, and a creamy sauce. Evvia served this almost like a very deep dish individual shepherd's pie. The lamb was rich and very flavorful, and the eggplant melted into the mix. It was topped by almost a crust of the cream sauce, which was baked until firm, but with just a bit of that in every bite, it balanced the rich spices of the lamb, and tasted wonderful.

We finished with a dessert which consisted of a small piece of baklava, pistachio ice cream, and a galaktoboureko, which is a vanilla scented semolina custard wrapped in phyllo. It was topped with a lavender honey infusion. Baklava is just too sweet. There is no way around this. I wish, I could get over it but I really can't. The other desert, was wonderful, and the lavender in the honey really was present in the flavor of the food. The pistachio ice cream was also excellent.

I definitely recommend this restaurant for people who want to see what Greek food could taste like, when prepared well. I was blown away, and would put this in the top 2 of places I've ever had lamb. It probably is the number one place I've ever had lamb, but I don't want to overstep while I'm lacking in my scientific approach.

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