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Blue-and-White Cafe Plaka Is Heavy on Greek Flavor

October 08, 1992|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Restaurant junkies expect trends, but who among us thought Greek cuisine would heat up the way it has? This past year has brought us a brace of upscale Greek restaurants, Costa Mesa's redoubtable Zorba's and the swank Aegean Cafe in Laguna Beach.

Now along comes Cafe Plaka, splendid in blue and white, the newest addition to a Fountain Valley shopping mall already loaded with restaurants (Rim Jhim, Caffe Teresa, Islands). And would you believe it, in spite of the competition, the place is an absolute madhouse on weekends. Opa!

Much of the early credit goes to a man named John Gianakakos (better just call him John) and his partner, Steve Tsirtsis (make that Steve). John comes to us via Canada and Chicago, where he was in the produce business purveying mainly to Greek restaurants. Steve has spent most of his life in Greece, a chef by trade, and a good one.

It's hard to believe that this restaurant was once a breakfast place called Le Peep. The owners have created an unmistakably Greek space with a trompe-l'oeil blue-sky ceiling, overhead trellises hung with bunched grapes, the obligatory Greek statuary perched on ledges overhead and a village-type mural dominating the rear wall. White butcher paper protects the tablecloths--a cost-saving measure not in the spirit of the elegant surroundings. The colors match, at least.

The waiters are speed demons with Greek accents who will line up to dance later in the evening. (There is live bouzouki music every night but Monday.) The first thing they do is bring you a basket of fairly French bread and olive bread, intended for sopping up the pool of olive oil poured into a small plate and placed in the center of your table.

I'm not convinced this is such a good idea. This a bright yellow, slightly acrid oil, not approaching the quality of the moss-green extra-virgin olive oils found on tables in chi-chi Italian restaurants (which, ironically, may well be Greek extra-virgin oil bought in bulk and bottled in Italy). You're better off ordering a basket of grilled pita bread at a slight additional charge. The pita has a thin residue of oil from the grill, but is a lighter and much tastier proposition.

After the bread issue is settled, there are hearty appetizers from which to choose. Yannis pikilia , for instance: little mounds of creamy taramosalata (Greek caviar dip, as it were) and the unctuous eggplant dip known as melitzanosalata , surrounded by things such as tangy grape leaves stuffed with rice and ground meat, obelisks of feta, succulent and mildly bitter Kalamata olives, pastry triangles with cheese and spinach fillings and a wonderful marinated octopus. Beautifully arranged on an oval platter, it makes a downright irresistible spread, apart from being the menu's best value.

Keftedes are Greek meatballs, a dish much like the little girl with the curl who is very, very good sometimes, but when she is bad . . . well, you know. But no worries here. These are remarkably light keftedes, what must be a mixture of ground lamb and beef mingled with chopped mint leaves and garlic, dredged lightly in flour and pan-fried in ever so little olive oil.

I'm a bit more tentative about saganaki, the fried cheese flamed in brandy. It's a good salty cheese, all right, served with a noisy flourish. Come to think of it, though, it's already noisy enough in here.

Greek salad and horiatiki (pronounce it hori-AH-tee-kee) are more adjuncts to a Greek meal than appetizers. Both contain tomato, cucumber, feta cheese and olives, but horiatiki substitutes onions for salad greens and is a lot heavier on the salty components, olives and cheese. At any rate, these dishes represent your only chance for true lightness in here.

Some main dishes, in fact, are impossibly heavy, especially the village fare listed under the section called Plaka's Specialties. Pastitsio is enriched macaroni and cheese, as if that dish needed it. Plaka's version comes in a huge cube topped with Bechamel sauce, stuffed with ground meat and dripping with aromatically spiced tomato sauce and grated cheese.

Yuvetsi is more like a stew, and it's for real trenchermen. Plaka uses giant cubes of soft beef, piled into a ceramic dish atop orzo pasta drenched in a rich olive oil and tomato sauce. If you're not that hungry, you can always go the route of broiled dishes, even if some of them miss the mark. Grecian chicken, a pounded chicken half broiled in lemon juice and oregano, comes up a tad flaccid. The paidaki --marinated, broiled lamb chops--don't have much flavor.

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