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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Place to Party : The food isn't really out of the ordinary, but the lively atmosphere makes The Great Greek a standout.

March 12, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Best Greek Restaurant in L.A.--L.A. TIMES" proclaims the banner over the door at The Great Greek. Might I quibble just a bit, particularly since its menu doesn't promise anything out of the ordinary? Restaurateur Ernie Criezis, who began his restaurant empire with The Great Greek (he has since opened the nearby Moonlight Tango Cafe and the very good Cafe Athens in Santa Monica), features pretty much the same food you find at any other L.A. Greek place.

Anyway, it's certainly elegant in here, with hints of Art Deco and a lively collection of Greek-language political posters. The dense accumulation of posters provides a short course in the Greek resistance movement (if you happen to be able to read Greek), and it contributes to the crowded feeling of a European bistro, say, 60 years ago. You sit hunched together at tables or on red vinyl banquettes here, disarmingly close to your neighbors.

Don't worry, though--no one can hear you. It's loud at The Great Greek. Opa!

The waiters and musicians are busy making such a commotion that you can scarcely hear yourself above the din. The waiters often sing and dance all the way out into the street , for heaven's sake. Argue all you want about which is best; I'm pretty sure this is L.A.'s liveliest Greek restaurant, a place where you come to party.

The food is almost beside the point, and for the most part I find it on the good side of workmanlike. Oven-roasted chicken Plaka is one of my favorite dishes, redolent of oregano and lemon juice, though it's hardly distinctive. The Great Greek does make a mean moussaka.

If there are more than two of you, throw caution to the winds and order the Greek deluxe family-style dinner. That way there are no agonizing decisions to make, because it's simply the entire menu (well, almost; 15 dishes) set down on grazing plates.

The first round consists of taramo , tzatziki , melitzanosalata , tabbouleh, hummus tahini, fasolia and horiatiki. (Say it five times fast and they won't make you dance.) It's hard not to pig out in this round--in my view, the dinner's best one.

T aramo is carp roe whipped into a froth with pureed potatoes and oil, a wonderful foil for the house pita bread (brought in from Chicago and served grilled, $2.25/a basket). Tzatziki is an addictive, refreshing dip of yogurt, garlic, cucumber and mint, the lightest of the first courses. Horiatiki you know as Greek salad of tomatoes, onions, olives and feta with the gratuitous introduction of lettuce.

Melitzanosalata , hummus and tabbouleh are familiar Middle Eastern dishes that have taken root in Greece: eggplant dip, garbanzo dip and the well-known Lebanese salad of chopped parsley and bulgur wheat. I prefer the fasolia --large white beans simply marinated in olive oil and lemon.

This is, be warned, the light stuff. The next round consists of deep-fried squid, stuffed grape leaves, spiced meatballs, orzo pasta topped with grated cheese and the spinach cheese pie (the famous spanakopita ). These are, as I said before, fairly workmanlike, no better and no worse, with two exceptions: The grape leaves, surprisingly free from bitterness and complemented with a tempting egg-lemon sauce, are delicious, and the spanakopita is hideously overcooked.

By now you're probably too full to appreciate the heavier dishes, but there'll be a lamb specialty of the day (invariably slices of stewed or roasted lamb) and broiled beef ( souvlaki ), which, unfortunately for the impatient, is terrific. Pastitsio is a baked macaroni casserole stuffed with meat and topped with Bechamel sauce. Give up?

Good, because dessert is not included in this feast, and you wouldn't want it to be. The generic baklava and a semolina milk pudding called galaktobouriko are wasted calories, as far as I'm concerned, and the restaurant's honey nut parfait is too rich to eat after any kind of a meal. It consists of vanilla bean ice cream, thick Greek honey, huge halved walnuts and whipped cream.

Honey and whipped cream after a meal like this? Give us a break. I can live with all the banners and singing, but this is where I draw the line.

WHERE AND WHEN

* Location: The Great Greek, 13362 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

* Suggested Dishes: Greek fasolia beans, $3.95; stuffed grape leaves, $6.25; oven-roasted chicken Plaka, $13.85; beef souvlaki, $15.75.

* Hours: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Sunday- Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday.

* Price: Dinner for two, $25-$45. Full bar. Valet parking. All major cards.

* Call: (818) 905-5250.

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