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RESTAURANTS | Counter Intelligence

A Jam-Packed Mediterranean Medley at Malvasia

March 02, 2000|LINDA BURUM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Malvasia is not your average Greek restaurant. It's an opulent taverna for the Belmont Shore area of Long Beach, one with high-octane conversational buzz in place of bouzouki music and a menu listing quail in ladolemono sauce and grilled venison as well as souvlaki.

The name "Malvasia" comes from Monemvasia, hometown of the owner's father. Monemvasia exported a sweet white wine (called Malvasia or Malmsey) throughout Europe until the 16th century, when production was destroyed after the Turkish conquest of Greece. Monemvasia's turbulent history and the countries where the green-gold Malvasia grape eventually spread (Spain, Italy, France) have inspired this pan-Mediterranean menu.

One evening, after devouring a plate of crisp fried smelts here, a friend had a special of wild boar chops in meat glaze sweetened with currants and apricots. I ordered kouneli stifado, rabbit stewed in red wine. It came dotted with pearl onions, flanked with a mountain of (overly fluffy) garlic mashed potatoes, grilled eggplant and lots of steamed fresh vegetables. If you think this sounds like massive amounts of food, you're right.

A week after the boar and rabbit feast, some friends and I went back. We were so engrossed by the indulgent-sounding appetizer list that we fell into an absolute silence. I almost expected someone to break out pen and paper and start prioritizing their choices.

All the familiar Greek restaurant starters are available, but we decided to try bantzaria, dolmades yalantzi, loukanika and the house lettuce salad, which is topped with Italian potato salad and feta cheese. (By the way, five or six of these generous "appetizers," ranging from $3.50 to $9.95 each, would serve four as a meal.)

The most coveted was roasted beets (bantzaria), their sweet, meaty flavor playing off a vinaigrette dressing. But all is not perfection in this kitchen. The rice in the dolmades stuffing was so al dente I wondered whether someone had simply forgotten to cook them. And their yogurt topping (to be sure, wonderfully rich Greek yogurt) didn't really complement the flavors of the dish.

The Greek sausages (loukanika), a better choice, were two long links--really, enough for an entree--that had been split, grilled and hauntingly flavored with coriander and orange peel.

When the entrees arrived, our table looked like a Roman banquet. The whole fish, hot from the grill and slightly charred in spots, was fresh, running with juiciness and lightly crisped outside. A serving-size bowl of braised, curly endive doused with fresh lemon and olive oil came alongside.

The crunchy, golden rotisserie chicken, aggressively flecked with herbs, had unfortunately spent a bit too long on the fire. On the other hand, the beautifully lean lamb shish kebab came rare, just as we'd ordered. But the roast potatoes that garnish many plates seem tired, as though they've been sitting out for quite some time, or even possibly refrigerated.

Kotopoulo Malvasia was a chicken breast marinated in lemon juice and oregano, grilled and served on perfectly cooked linguine. It was possibly enough food for several hungry children. We wished, though, that its Kalamata olive and tomato sauce had fewer Roma tomatoes and more sun-dried ones. But at $10.50, this may be asking too much.

After all this, dessert may seem unnecessary, especially since the choices are nothing too exotic. Our creme bru^lee, more pudding-like than custardy, would have sufficed for the table, but I had to try the baklava. It was nicely crisp and well filled with ground nuts--and huge, of course. It was basically a fine baklava, but I thought the chocolate sauce dribbled around the plate clashed with it.

To make a long story short: Malvasia serves some wonderful dishes, but its kitchen might benefit from narrowing the menu and perfecting every item, rather than attempting to cover quite so much of the Mediterranean map.

Note: You can sample two wines made with Malvasia grapes here, Pepi Malvasia Bianca and, unusually, a red Malvasia, Paros "Morati." Both have the grape's trademark sweetness.

BE THERE

Malvasia, 5316 E. 2nd St., Long Beach. (562) 433-5005. Open 4-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday. Beer and wine. Street parking; pay lot behind building. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $19 to $70.

What to Get: bantzaria, Greek sausages, house salad, fried smelts, grilled whole fish, wild boar, kouneli stifado with garlic mashed potatoes, baklava.

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