Grecian Formula

By Dianne Jacob
SF Weekly

When you walk in the door at Kokkari, you immediately see how the owners spent $5 million renovating and decorating the place. Never mind that the real Kokkari is actually a small fishing village on the Aegean Sea, or that Greek food has traditionally been offered in rather downscale, mom-and-pop eateries: This is Greece as envisioned by Ralph Lauren.

Picture a comfortable 7,000-square-foot European country house with a beamed ceiling, upholstered chairs, and a roaring fire in the hearth. You almost expect to see men with pipes and boots and hounds at their feet, just back from the hunt.

But we are in the Financial District. And Kokkari is splendidly romantic and beautiful, with minute attention to interior detail and texture. There’s an Old World charm to the high, wood-shuttered windows, couches, and handmade ceramic plates. Oilskin floor lamps emanate a soft golden glow at night. A long bar and a raised fireplace accent the first room, and in front of the fireplace, servers cut long, rustic loaves of bread and dip into a huge ceramic container of olives. Walk through a large hallway lined with booths and you’ll find a second room, whose exposed kitchen bustles with chefs in white.

The partners, all of Greek heritage, are striving to raise the perception of Greek food -- they want you to experience Greek food in an upscale setting, just as you might French or Italian cuisine. And if anyone can do it, they can: Three years ago, the same group opened Evvia, a thriving estiatorio (Greek for “restaurant”) in Palo Alto.

Kokkari’s prices reflect this aspiration: Lunch for two reached an exorbitant $90, for two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts, and one glass of wine. If you’re on a budget, the lunch menu has salads and sandwiches priced from $7.50 to $12.95.

We began with a Greek chardonnay called Santorini ($7), which I found to be a sweet and pleasant white, although it reminded a friend of Aqua Velva. The wine list features a smattering of Greek whites and reds but otherwise is dominated by California wines. Appetizers were beautifully presented and delicious: Grilled house-made pita bread came with a trio of traditional Greek spreads ($10.75) including a smoky eggplant salad, a rich yogurt-cucumber dip, and a salty but wonderful cod roe purée. Flaky spinach pie ($6.50), another Greek standard, was tasty without being oily. Three meatballs ($6.50) were the only disappointment, served as they were on a bed of acidic and overly spiced roasted red peppers. But Kokkari does Greek salad right: no lettuce, just cucumber, tomatoes, olives, feta, and onions.

When in Greece, eat lamb. So we did. There was an amazing braised lamb shank ($16.95), aromatic with cinnamon and so tender it fell off the bone. It came on a bed of orzo with a savory wine reduction sauce. Unfortunately, some other entrees we tried needed help. Three little lamb chops ($19.95 at dinner or $16.95 at lunch) were tender but smothered in garlic and spiced beyond all reason. Grilled swordfish ($18.95 dinner/$16.95 lunch) was also so highly seasoned that we couldn’t eat more than a few bites. Spit-roasted and mesquite-grilled lemon chicken ($15.50), while pretty and brown with a crispy skin, was otherwise ordinary.

Desserts ($7) are masterful. My friend swooned over the white bowl of hazelnut ice cream: three creamy balls drizzled with caramel and accented by what seemed to be chocolate-covered Rice Krispies. Tiny cookies and sweets included a powdered wedding cookie, a slice of nougat with toasted almonds, and a yogurt-stuffed dried apricot dipped in ground pistachio. The cookies’ shapes, sizes, and colors were pretty against a large, sky-blue ceramic plate. On our second trip, we tried egg-shaped ovals of Greek yogurt, rich and creamy, on swirls of tangy tangerine granita. The contrasts were splendid: cream, ice, tart, and sweet all in one bite.

The service was friendly and professional, if a little harried, but food came out of the kitchen at a clip and portions were generous. So if you want to experience upscale Greek, dress up and enjoy the luxurious setting. Just don’t look for mom and pop.