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Greek Chef Displays Her True Colors

Christakis puts big emphasis on a friendly environment with specialties done home-style.

June 25, 1998|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Maybe you remember Christakis Greek Cuisine when it was Tony and Maria's Greek Cuisine (Greek-born Joanne Christakis Wallace took it over about a year ago). In my recollection, Tony and Maria's was a drab place, though perhaps memory fails me.

But there's nothing drab about Christakis. The dining room is a celebration in blue and white, the Greek national colors. The narrow, closely spaced tables are surrounded by gaudy blue-and-white umbrellas, hanging plants and Greek artifacts.

This is also a restaurant where everyone seems to know everyone else. A team of indulgent waiters greets the regulars like old friends. Meanwhile, Wallace spends as much time in the dining room, socializing with guests, as in her kitchen.

But the food doesn't suffer for her absence. It's obvious she has trained her chefs properly when you dig into pikilia, a huge appetizer plate of taramosalata, melitzanosalata, hummus, Kalamata olives, feta cheese and the delicious pastry triangles known as spanakopita and tiropita.

Eaten with wedges of butter-grilled pita bread, this nearly vegetarian feast is more than enough for a meal. Taramosalata, the only nonvegetarian item on the enormous platter, is a cool, creamy cod-roe spread that makes a refreshing starter when smeared on pita.

Melitzanosalata is an unctuous, slightly tart eggplant dip. The deliciously buttery spanakopita and tiropita are filled with delicate swatches of spinach and smooth feta cheese, respectively. Everything on the platter tastes better when combined with the accompanying obelisks of feta or the salty, mildly bitter olives.

Dinners are moderate feasts themselves. All entrees come with a particularly delicate rice pilaf, two huge, oregano-scented wedges of roasted potato and a pile of green beans stewed with tomatoes and spices. Dinners also include a choice of a superb Greek salad or what is perhaps the best egg-lemon soup I've ever tasted.

What makes the salad so good is the dressing, a thick vinaigrette laced with crumbled feta that is a natural complement to the pungency and bitterness of the salad components, tomato, onion, Kalamata olives and mixed lettuce greens. The avgolemono soup is even better. It's an especially comforting canary-yellow bowlful of natural chicken stock and rice flavored with fresh lemon juice and eggs beaten in to order.

One of the best entrees is a lemony, charcoaly, ultra-tender chicken kebab (souvlaki). The chunks of chicken are blackened skillfully enough to please Paul Prudhomme.

Paidakia is four top-quality grilled lamb chops without so much as a speck of fat around the edges, marinated in lemon juice. That may the best way to eat lamb here, unless you want to spring for the more expensive rack of lamb, for which the price changes daily. I didn't care much for the roast lamb (arni psito), though. In this dish the meat comes in a richly flavorful gravy, but the thick slices were gristly and tough; it's clearly not the careful cooking this kitchen is capable of.

The homiest dishes are the pastas and casseroles. Take the delicious moussaka, which has little in common with versions served in high-volume Greek restaurants. First, Wallace layers a pan with flour dredged, sauteed eggplant. Then she adds a sweetly spiced ground meat mixture and a thick topping of bechamel sauce before finishing it off in the oven. The result is fluffier and more delicate than any moussaka you may have known. Pastitsio, a Greek style macaroni and cheese enriched with bits of meat, is served in squares like the moussaka, with the same thick bechamel top.

The best of the simple pastas is makaronada, long, meltingly soft pasta tubes baked with brown butter and a light sprinkling of the Parmesan-like Mizithra cheese. This dish is also a cousin of macaroni and cheese, but lighter and less filling, It's also the one item I'd order every time I had the chance.

I've often complained that our ethnic restaurants don't vary the formula enough, so I'm sorry to say that the menu's one real innovation, briami, is a misstep. The menu bills it as zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes and onions baked with olive oil, which sounds interesting. What I got, though, was a glass baking dish full of watery carrots and green beans, combined with a few potatoes and pieces of skinless eggplant and mere traces of olive oil.

Christakis has a nice wine list with several bargains, including half-bottles of surprisingly palatable Greek red table wines for as little as $11. (Try the Semeli or Skouras.)

For the end of the meal, I recommend a tiny cup of Greek coffee and perhaps one of the rich Greek desserts. The oversized baklava is a dense, buttery square of phyllo pastry layered with minced walnuts, served in a pool of rich, honey-flavored syrup. Galaktoboureko is a similar phyllo pastry with a semolina-thickened milk filling.

If you hanker for a more American dessert, twice a week Suzanne, one of the Sunday night waitresses, brings in great chocolate cheesecake that she bakes at home. It's just one more little cozy touch that distinguishes Christakis Greek Cuisine from the other Greek restaurants around.

Christakis Greek Cuisine is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3-$7.95. Pastas are $9.95-$15.95. Entrees are $9.95-$17.95.

BE THERE

Christakis Greek Cuisine, 13011 Newport Ave., Tustin. Lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner daily, 4:30-10 p.m. All major cards.

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