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Irrepressible Zorba's Finds New Life in Anaheim

February 08, 1996|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I's no surprise that Aristides Deslis has named his new Anaheim restaurant Zorba's; that was the name of his now-defunct Costa Mesa restaurant. Deslis also goes a long way toward embodying the character of Zorba himself, the utterly spontaneous, irrepressible hero of the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.

When Deslis isn't cooking up a storm in his kitchen, he's often found kissing customers at the door and gyrating around the restaurant's marble floor beside the belly dancers.

Zorba's is in the upscale Koll Center, a complex that adds needed diversity to downtown Anaheim. Deslis did most of the restaurant's design work himself. If the sea green and bleached white color scheme doesn't clearly imply Greece, the plasterwork does. Ionic columns are scattered throughout the oblong room, busts of Demeter, Athena and Aphrodite are mounted on the walls and statues of Zeus and Poseidon guard the front entrance.

The owner may be as frenetic as ever, but this Zorba's is quieter than the Costa Mesa edition; the room seems positively calm at lunch and on weeknights.

For one thing, Deslis spends more time in the kitchen now. For another, his friend Daliatis, who used to pick up tables with his teeth at the Costa Mesa restaurant, is on sabbatical in Greece. And this is one Greek restaurant where the soundtrack, when it isn't featuring the expected bouzouki twangers, plays soothing New Age music.

Deslis has scaled down his menu since his last restaurant, a move I can't say I applaud. Gone are pastitsio, a rich macaroni casserole, and the terrific youvarlakia, which was slices of grilled lamb in an egg-lemon sauce.

I hope some day he'll consider bringing back marides (batter-fried smelts) and kalamarakia, those light, crunchy pieces of deep-fried squid that were among the attractions of the old Zorba's.

Happily, many good things remain. Deslis still marinates all meats in yogurt, tenderizing them and giving a subtle richness of flavor. Many dishes are embellished with Greek brandies such as Metaxa or the anise-flavored ouzo. And occasional flashes of innovation brighten up any meal. The terrific kopanisti, for instance: a dip based on pureed red pepper, blended with feta, ouzo, crushed Kalamata olives and mustard.

This cuisine is altogether pretty big on dips, which tend to have difficult names like taramosalata, melitzanosalata and tzatziki. They're served cold in tiny ceramic cups, and occasionally, one or two will be brought out gratis to complement the bread.

Taramosalata is cod roe creamed with garlic and olive oil, and this is a mild, light version. Melitzanosalata is made from pureed eggplant and olives, with a generous splash of lemon juice for pungency. The wonderful tzatziki, a thick, creamy dip of yogurt, cucumber and mint, matches anything, from the superb pita bread (imported from Dionysus Foods in Chicago) to broiled lamb.

If you come very hungry, you can take on one of the more filling appetizers, such as the little triangular pies made from filo pastry, spanokopita (filled with spinach and feta cheese) and tiropita (with just plain feta).

Gigantes beans a la Zorba are enormous white beans in a rich, aromatic tomato sauce. Pickled baby octopus tastes of bay leaf and olive oil, and it's so tender the tentacles practically melt in your mouth. Saganaki is a rectangle of fried, breaded cheese flamed at your table. Personally, I've always found it a little silly to watch cheese flaming away while a chorus of waiters shouts "Opa!"

After appetizers, you might share a Greek salad among two (or maybe even more) diners. Called horiatiki, it's a mountain of cucumbers, purple onions, Kalamata olives, tomatoes and lettuces, seasoned with oregano, crumbled feta and a powerful vinaigrette.

Nearly all entrees are broiled, but a notable exception is chicken lemonata. I love this Greek way of oven-roasting chicken with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and potatoes. Zorba's chicken lemonata is a wonderful, tender half chicken finished with a touch of egg lemon sauce.

*

Among those broiled items, the best is lamb souvlaki, perfectly browned shish kebab redolent of garlic with hints of cinnamon and clove. Credit either the yogurt marinade or Deslis' horizontal broiling method, but this is simply the best lamb dish I've had in recent memory. The chicken souvlaki is tender in the extreme, almost mushy. Rack of lamb, at $14.95 the menu's most expensive dish, is fatty chops that can't hold a candle to the souvlaki.

All entrees come with fluffy rice pilaf, roast potatoes and steamed vegetables. Moussaka is the familiar eggplant casserole layered with ground meat and topped with bechamel sauce. Chicken rigatoni is baked pasta with peas, sun-dried tomatoes. huge pieces of boneless chicken and kefalotiri cheese. Seafoods include baked salmon, a tasty, lemony broiled swordfish and fresh Pacific prawns, sauteed with feta and heaps of garlic.

The desserts are heavily sweetened, in the Greek manner, such as the baklava, made with a double portion of nuts. Deslis puts rather too much cinnamon in his rizogalo, a creamy rice pudding flavored with raisins and brandy. The best dessert is galaktoboureko, a buttery square of honey-drenched pastry enclosing a milky pudding based on, of all things, Cream of Wheat. Ask to have it served warm.

Finish with a tiny cup of Greek coffee. Then Deslis will probably either embrace you or drag you out onto the dance floor. Don't say I, or Kazantzakis, didn't warn you.

Zorba's is moderately priced. Appetizers are $2.25 to $3.95. Entrees are $8.95 to $14.95.

* ZORBA'S

* 195 W. Harbor Place, Anaheim.

* (714) 999-5075.

* Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-11 p.m. daily; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.

* All major cards.

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