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Restaurants | THE REVIEW

So chic and so very Greek

March 22, 2006|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

GOAT'S milk feta from mountainous Epirus off the Ionian sea. Spanakopita made with fresh spinach, that marvelous feta, and filo dough laboriously rolled out by hand. Greek snapper drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Thick Greek yogurt scribbled with fragrant honey.

In Southern California, the French are represented by bistros and haute cuisine, the Italians by trattorie and elegant ristoranti, but Greek cuisine here -- and it's not easy to find -- means boisterous tavernas. Places such as Papa Cristo's or Sofi in Los Angeles or Taverna Tony in Malibu are fun and good, but somehow we've never really had a serious Greek restaurant. Until now.

Enter Petros, a new restaurant and lounge in Manhattan Beach. Set in a slick new shopping center in the heart of the South Bay beach town, Petros goes against every cliche of Greek restaurants. No posters of Mykonos or folk dancers in costume. No cheesy plaster statues or Greek flags. The interior is all white, the walls unadorned, sleek and sophisticated. The chef has done time in some of L.A.'s best kitchens and has both technique and soul. And the crowd is the same one you'd find at any upscale California restaurant on this part of the coast -- mostly young, affluent and intent on partying the night away.

The food is just as much a departure. The breadth of Petros' menu and prices that are higher than at most L.A. Greek spots reflect the fact that chef Yianni Koufodontis, who was sous-chef at both Spago and Maple Drive, not only has some serious technique, but has also made the effort to seek out top-notch ingredients.

Meze, the little dishes served to share at the beginning of the meal, are the glory of the Greek table. And at Petros they're so enticing and presented with such conviction that a good many Angelenos are sure to fall under their spell.

You'll want to start with an order of the combo dips, which come with warm triangles of pita bread. I've started ordering two plates for the table now, so that everyone can dive in with abandon, scooping up the smoky eggplant puree or tzatziki, that addictive blend of thick Greek yogurt and cucumber with garlic and lemon. Each spread is distinctive and delicious. If you fall for the earthy pureed fava beans, next time you can order a plate all to yourself. Or maybe it'll be the olivada, minced Greek olives with good olive oil and a little sun-dried tomato, next time you can order a plate all to yourself.

Often skorthalia, (sometimes spelled skordalia) a sort of aioli traditionally made in a mortar and pestle and thickened with potato, comes to the table with the bread; it always disappears in a heartbeat. This stuff is potent with garlic and absolutely terrific. One dish it always comes with is the roasted heirloom baby beets and beet greens.

I'm just taking my first bite of horta -- wilted dandelion greens dressed in lemon and olive oil -- when I look up to see the elderly Greek widow I had met in the bar across the room at a table with her family. She told me she was born in Greece 86 years ago, but grew up and raised her family in a small lumber town north of Eureka. It's well past 10, but there she is, hoisting a glass of ouzo and yelling out "Opa!" ("All right!") I can only hope I'll be doing the same at her age.

Soon we're involved with saganaki, kefalotiri cheese browned in a pan until it's molten in the center, then dressed with a squirt of lemon and some parsley. The cheese is excellent, a very credible version. But it pales next to two versions made with feta. Nikos saganaki is crusted with sesame seeds and golden raisins; the sweet against the salty creaminess of the feta is brilliant. And I love the combination of firm pink shrimp with tomatoes and crumbled feta in the shrimp saganaki.

The same beautiful shrimp appear in a salad with firm, ripe avocado and a lemon vinaigrette showered with fragrant herbs: basil, mint, dill, and parsley. It's swimming in juices that cry out to be mopped up with your bread. What a lovely summery dish.

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