Food Fit for the Gods

Friday, January 1, 1999
San Francisco Downtown

In the small fishing village of Kokkari on the Aegean Sea, local wild game and seafood hold a special place as the gifts that Orion, son of the Greek god Poseidon, presented to his love in ancient times.

These delicacies are esteemed, as well, at Kokkari Estiatorio (200 Jackson, 981-0983), where Chef Jean Alberti renders them mouth-watering, along with such Hellenic classics as spanikotiropita ($7.50) and moussaka ($15.75).

Everything about the place is charming, from the successful fusion of tradition and modernity in cuisine and decorto the knowledgeable and gracious staff. Patrons dine amid rustic woodwork, a cozy fireplace and handmade pottery while, in the enormous exhibition kitchen, regional Mediterranean dishes are updated with French technique and Californian ingredients.

Crispy, lightly battered smelts resemble calamari in presentation, but their texture is richer, their flavor retaining the distinctive tang of sea salt ($8.25). Filet of halibut, baked in tomato sauce with braised fennel and cabbage dolmathes, is a gratifying winter warmer ($16.50). Quail stuffed with winter greens, atop oven-roasted leeks and orzo & wild rice pilaf, surprises the palate with hints of nutmeg ($18.50).

According to Alberti, "The Greeks invented cuisine." Emphasizing autumn spices and Hellenic custom (try squeezing a little lemon on your meat), he flawlessly brings their time-honored recipes up-to-date. Kokkari is open for dinner nightly and weekdays for lunch.