Specialites De La Maison

By Caroline Bates
Tuesday, June 1, 1999
Gourmet Magazine

Just before six at KOKKARI, the waiters gather in front of the great stone fireplace and unwrap long batards, stacking them like so many Lincoln Logs beside pottery jars of olives on a massive oak table, which, like the weathered window shutters and several communal tables in this elegantly rustic Greek restaurant, is fabricated from century-old barn wood. An audience of two, we savor this quiet moment before the curtain rises on the evening crush.

Bread chore completed, the staff straighten Oriental rugs, adjust the amber shades on the iron floor lamps, and wipe imaginary spots off sparkling wineglasses. We are seated in what the restaurant calls " the living room." Beyond lies a larger informal space, suggestive of a taverna, with an open kitchen. Anchoring one end is a huge urn of heated sand where copper and brass pots of strong Greek coffee are swirled and brewed. Soon the pace quickens as the rest of the audience begins to arrive. Pretty young women perch on barstools, nibbling on sour Greek olives and flaky spinach-and-feta phyllo pies. Waiters rush around with menus and wine bottles. The performance has begun, and we're caught up completely in the plot, which centers around the sun-drenched cooking of the Aegean.

Kokkari is a fishing village on Samos where, according to myth, the mighty hunter Orion wooed the daughter of the king of Chios, foraging the island to prepare elaborate banquets for her. It is also the birthplace of one of the restaurant's six owners, whose out-of-town tryout was the highly regarded Evvia in Palo Alto. For the San Francisco debut, they spent five million dollars transforming the former Ciao and an adjoining office on the corner of Jackson Square into this stunningly beautiful space.

Jean Alberti, the French born and trained executive chef, spent over a year traveling in Greece, soaking up the culture and the food. With profound respect as well as skill, he has lightening an ancient cuisine for modern tastes without losing its rustic nature. Dishes sparkle with fresh oregano and dill, the scents of warm spices, and Greek olives and oils of character. The house-made pita bread, topped with minced Kalamata olives and grated myzithra (a hard sheep's-milk cheese), is peasant fare for the gods. Never, we think, has Greek food tasted this good in an American restaurant.

The pikilia platter, with its classic spreads and grilled pita, makes an ideal starter for two or three. The creamy pink taramosalata is whipped with carp roe, more delicate than other cured fish roes. Dill-scented yogurt tsatsiki, crunchy with cucumber, refreshes the palate with its clean, cool tastes. The smoky eggplant salas, melitzanosalata, is exceptional, too. And I can't remember better dolmades, the grape leaves moist and supple around their rice, pinenut, and currant filling. Among several wonderful Greek salads, I'm particularly drawn to charcoal-grilled octopus and roasted Greek red peppers on frisee. Although the avgolemono, Greec'e famous rice- and egg-thickened chicken soup, seems too salty, its smoothness and piquant lemon tang are so seductive I clean my bowl.

One day I order the maussaka without much enthusiasm. If it's like most restaurant's moussaka, I know it will sit heavily in my stomach and leave me dull and logy for hours. But what arrives, bubbling hot in a brown casserole, is unlike any I've eaten. (Indeed, the chef later reveals that the kitchen tested more than a hundred moussaka recipes to arrive at this one.) Though still hearty, the layers of potato, cinnamon-spiced lamb, and eggplant with a yogurt-based béchamel crust are light, not oily at all, and hauntingly delicious. Of all Kokkari's main dishes, it is my favorite.

And that is saying a great deal, considering how much I like the spinach-stuffed roast quail, served on roasted leeks and a wild rice and orzo pilaf. Or the juicy spit-roasted chicken, basted with lemon juice. The peppery lamp chops are first-rate, too, paired with the best potatoes imaginable, which are braised in a lemony chicken stock with oregano before being baked and quickly fried. And even though eating a grilled whole fish here and at seaside taverna - where you may have picked it out yourself - are not comparable experiences. Kokkari's striped bass with its lemon and oregano vinaigrette is well worth ordering. (You may, however, have to persuade the waiter to let you, rather than the kitchen, bone the fish.)

When the waiter arrives bearing desserts, I wonder if Orion plied his love with honeyed sweets half as seductive as these. Alongside sugary, almost weightless apple fritters is an intense, flowery Attiki honey ice cream. Chocolate is the theme of sokolatina, with its coffee-soaked sponge cake encased in chocolate-caramel cream with walnut nougatine. A lovely yogurt sorbet with a tangerine granita is a lighter option. Pastry chef Joy Jessop's variations on phyllo include pastry flutes filled with lemony semolina custard and a bastela with spiced walnuts and almonds. But most remarkable of all is her pista-chio baklava ("it took me months to get it right," she says). It is not honey-drenched and overly sweet. It is, in fact, the perfect finale to a performance that you wish would never end.

Kokkari serves lunch from 11:30 to 2:30 on weekdays and dinner from 5:30 to 10 Monday through Thursday and 5 to 11 Friday and Saturday. Lunch dishes are $10.50 to $16. Dinner starters are $5.95 to $12.50, main dishes $14.25 to $24, and desserts $7. The selection of California is savvy, but the excitement here is the Greek wines made from ancient varietal in the land where vines have been cultivated since 600 B.C. KOKKARI 200 Jackson Street (at Front) Tel. (415) 981-0983