I am tempted to repeat myself after visiting Sofi Estiatorion at its new location on Third Street.
In fact, I think I will.
Sofi is still charming. It's still a sort of intellectual Greek taverna. And I still think the place would not be the same without the strong presence and natural charm of Sofi Lazaridis, the owner-cook, a medical doctor, who turned to the restaurant business because she loves to cook.
Only the decor has changed since its makeshift days on Robertson Boulevard. You enter through a long, long hallway (hidden from view from the street, so look hard) which leads to a patio. It reminds me of a similar entry to a restaurant in Athens called Girafinikia. On the right is a spacious room decorated in light woods. A young man thumps Greek tunes on the piano, which makes you want to beg for mercy. I'll take elevator Muzak, Handel's "Messiah." Anything but.
As for the food, Sofi's is about as good as you'll probably find in Greek restaurants in Los Angeles. And let me explain why.
Anyone who knows Greek cooking will quibble over the dryness or the wateriness of moussaka, the creaminess or limpness of the sauce, the toughness or tenderness of the souvlakia or the roast lamb. One day it is superb, the next not so. OK on Friday, not OK on Saturday.
Greek restaurant food is never consistently terrific because it is, by nature, home cooking. There is no Careme or Escoffier in Greek cooking. Greeks don't cook that way. Theirs is a natural style that throws a little of this and that in the pot with whatever technique and impulse suits the cook; there are no set procedures on la methode or la technique . On the other hand, Escoffier could never match the refined hand of a great Greek cook using herbs and spices, the essence of Greek cooking. But great Greek cooks are more likely found at home than in restaurants.
Good Job in Translation
Translating home cooking to restaurant cooking is the hitch.
As it is, Sofi does a good job in the translation. Sofi's grandmother was a great home cook, and it is her cooking that Sofi translates. Most dishes are very good. Some, in fact, are outstanding.
Among them (if I may start at the end of a meal) a dessert, galactoboureko , hot from the oven (or at least not more than a day old) is unsurpassable in my book. Sofi herself prepares the filo dough from scratch for certain desserts such as bougatsa, a filo pastry filled with apples.
Sofi does an especially good job with menu standbys such as garides , a dish teaming with shrimp and cheese, a combination a friend thought outrageous until he tasted it. The moussaka had a wonderfully light and fluffy bechamel topping the day I revisited. It was not as creamy on a previous occasion. I like the way Sofi prepares moussaka to resemble the Greek upturned shoe, as an eggplant half scooped out and filled with meat and bechamel sauce.
Youvetsi , roasted lamb with orzo (rice-shaped noodles), could be a disappointment for those looking for a pretty plate. Remember, this is home cooking. The lamb, however, is fragrant with herbs, as are most Greek dishes, and it is served with the orzo , which absorbs the wonderful flavor of the lamb's cooking juices.
We have yet to try the fish dishes-- csefias (pieces of marinated grilled swordfish) or plaki (red snapper baked with potatoes, tomatoes, onions and herbs), which fish lovers may enjoy. The filo dishes (filo pastry filled with spinach and cheese or lamb and mushrooms) are wonderful when fresh, especially when served hot from the oven.
Sofi Estiatorion, 8030 3/4 West 3rd St., Los Angeles, (213) 651-0346. Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 to 11 p.m. Closed Sunday. Major credit cards accepted. Reservations suggested. Greek and California wines available by glass or bottle. Spartan beer available. Corkage $5 per bottle. Average dinner $15.