Friday, May 6, 2011

Escape to the Greek Isles...in the Middle of the City

Upon entering Opa, the latest Greek establishment in Philadelphia from sibling owners George and Vasiliki Tsouris, you immediately feel that internal exclamation point of joy implied by the word itself. The colorful restaurant set on a dark, quiet stretch of Sansom near bustling 13th Street in Midtown Village sets the tone not only with its name, but also the cool interior design that invokes a hip Mediterranean nightspot. Hypnotizing hues of blue and geometric-shaped art displays of oversized water droplets have you feeling like Poseidon coming up for air.  Sensuous drapery descends from the ceiling as if unfolded from an Athenian god’s hands, surrounding a warm, square-shaped bar that is laden with smooth river rock and topped with a welcoming white acrylic counter. If only the metallic silver stools were as cozy and comfortable as the room itself. That slight furniture flaw gets quickly overlooked once the menu is delivered, though, making you weak in the knees, then thankful that you’re sitting underneath a soothing thatched canopy of birch branches to ponder your stomach’s fate.

There’s a collection of innovative and refreshing cocktails to tempt your tongue, some made with the Greek spirit Metaxa, which is a distilled blend of brandy, wine and an aged muscat from the islands of Samos and Lemnos.  An extensive wine list boasts Greek varietals rarely heard of and even harder to pronounce, but it pushes the welcome envelope to its guests and invites you ‘in’ for an education. The draft beer offerings are all refreshingly locally sourced and reasonably priced, while the bottled variety is primarily un-American, including Mythos, a light Greek lager from Thessaloniki. 

Sip on something cool while perusing the modernized Greek classics prepared by Andrew Brown, the former executive chef of the White Dog Cafe. Don’t expect over-the-top tourist-trap dishes here (but revel in the kitsch on the restaurant’s website) - there’s a refined touch to their preparation and presentation. Mezedes, similar to Spanish tapas, offer an opportunity to share lots of small bites, ranging from innovative zucchini chips with yogurt-based tzatziki, to keftedes, herbed veal meatballs served in an ouzo-infused tomato sauce. I opted for the spinach croquettes and grilled octopus, which had me wishing for an ocean-sprayed cafe in Santorini by the time they were devoured. 

Don’t let the simple names of these starters fool you - they are complex while still retaining a hominess that owes a nod to the owners’ mother, who apparently spent some time with Chef Brown during menu development. The four croquettes arranged on the diagonal had a dark, crispy exterior that contrasted perfectly with the soft spinach and feta filling. Colorful microgreens draped the fried cylinders whose crunch was accentuated by a smokey feta cheese ‘dip’ splashed on the plate as if stroked by an artist’s brush and served like orange-yellow paint on a palate. The octopus, an eight-legged cephalopod known for its intelligence, clearly lent some of its IQ to the kitchen before its demise. Served in pieces within a co-centric circle alongside a mound of chickpea ‘fondue’ that was spiked with coriander and perhaps cardamom (maybe even a dash of cinnamon), it was so tender to the fork that my knife had no reason to get dirty. Octopus is oftentimes over-manipulated and mismanaged to the point of chewiness and rubber, but Opa handles this creature with care and creativity. It undergoes a 2 day transformation, initially brined then braised for four hours and ultimately kissed by the grill, resulting in a finished product whose slightly-twisted and lemon-drizzled tentacles lend a charred texture to a bite that is meltingly soft to the tooth. Within  minutes, the canvas is returned to the studio as white as it once began. Without question, this dish reigns supreme with the potato-fennel-salsa verde octopus salad served at Stephen Starr’s Pizzeria Stella, while standing above the offering at Dmitri’s.   

My late-night swim at Opa did not allow for diving into the deep-end for main courses, but the wine-braised rabbit with house-made pasta and the feta stuffed grass-fed burger (bifteki) called to me in the way Andromeda may have cried for help while chained to the rocks. I’ll be happy to play heroic Perseus on my next visit, but I did cool off with an order of the baklava, the Ottoman Empire indulgence that infuses nuts and honey within layers of phyllo dough. Opa’s walnut-laden version, a triangular behemoth fit for King Zeus, was slightly dry despite its inherent sweetness, but it was blissfully paired with homemade vanilla-fig ice cream. The single-scoop tempted like forbidden fruit, and it was happily consumed without punishment. Other enticements like loukoumades, fried dough with a honey-cinnamon drizzle and spiced banana, and yogurt served with preserved fruit and nuts, kept my gaze like the eyes of Medusa and will surely lure me in when I decide to splash through Opa’s waves again. Luckily, my onlooking didn’t turn me to stone. 

Opa is a lively addition along the stretch of 13th Street that is becoming the most popular thoroughfare in the city for dining and playing. Bar service here was helpful, friendly and informative without being overbearing or obtrusive. The music on my visit was an odd collection of R&B and disco that seemed to clash with the overall vibe, but that can easily be remedied. Opa is the perfect spot to begin or end the evening with a cocktail, share a few small plates, or indulge in a full meal. If only the parking garage facing Opa on the opposite side of the street could be draped with the same fabrics near the bar or painted over by the city’s famed Mural Arts Department into a seascape, then you could easily close your eyes and imagine yourself overlooking the Aegean sipping an ouzo under a hot sun. After all, dreaming in Greek is so much more romantic. 

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