Kokkari serves romantic fantasy

By Patricia Unterman
Friday, January 29, 1999
San Francisco Examiner

The premature closing of Samos, with its inspiring views of the Bay, made me wonder if San Franciscans simply weren't interested in Greek food. Well, they are. The overnight success of Kokkari (named for a small fishing village on the island of Samos pronounced "Ko-kar-ee" ) proves it.

All 180 seats and 15 bar stools at this romantic rendition of a rustic Greek inn have been occupied right from the start, at least when I've dropped in - twice after 9 p.m., once at 6 p.m. We lucked into two end seats at the bar one night and got tables on the others after a wait. The lesson, of course, is to make a reservation despite this restaurant's substantial size. Kokkari clearly is the new hit in town.

You can't help being seduced by Kokkari's ambience. A massive, burning fireplace, big enough to roast whole lambs or goats, dominates a small, high-ceilinged dining room. Your eye is drawn to the mantel filled with hand-wrought copper and metal cooking vessels; then you notice the rough wooden table in front of the fireplace, laid with breads and crocks of olives.

Huge, unfinished, beams protrude from the ceiling, while antique Oriental carpets are scattered here and there on a polished wooden floor. Patrons relax in big, comfortable arm chairs - some upholstered, others of woven rattan with a seeming patina of age - at gently lit tables of various sizes. It's as if you stumbled into a private living room in a Greek country villa -maybe owned by an Onassis. With the bar at one end of this fantasy room, you think this is the whole, rather small, exceedingly charming, restaurant.

But wait. People are disappearing into a hallway, and if you follow them, you discover a spacious second restaurant with even bigger beams, a long, brightly lit open kitchen, and tall, wood-framed windows that look out onto Jackson Street. (It turns out that you're in the old Ciao, though you'd never know it.) A dramatically long refectory table stretches the length of one room with a party of at least 20 people. Other tables fill alcoves, suggesting private dining-room possibilities. Many diners are being accommodated in many different configurations all at once.

If you had entered this large dining area first, you might have thought, "oh, another big restaurant with an open kitchen." But the architect's (Howard Backen) idea of making the small room with the extravagant fireplace the portal sets the tone. No matter where you end up sitting, you imagine yourself in a place suggested by that first, evocative space.

Decor matters aside, my attention quickly turned to olives, glistening olives of many sizes in all hues of black, purple and green. Set on the table in a little pottery dish with an empty twin for the pits, these exceptional olives are not bitter but flavorful, not vinegary or salty but buttery and nuanced. I could make a meal of them. But this is one place where restraint will be rewarded.

You want to save appetite for additional mezethes (appetizers), first and foremost a platter of traditional Greek dips ($12.50 for two) served with scrumptious house-made pita bread served hot from the grill. Which of these dips was most delicious? The smoky roasted eggplant and pepper puree? The dollop of thick yogurt and cucumber so subtly seasoned with garlic? The creamy taramosalata infused with cured pink carp roe? They couldn't have been better.

If you've got additional eaters at the table, order gigantes ($5.95), creamy oversize lima beans braised with tomatoes and buttery Greek olive oil. Marithes tigantes ($8.25), a pile of crispy fried whole smelt, remind me of popcorn - making two things I can't stop eating. The Greek meatballs ($6.50) here were over-herbed.

This is not the season to eat tomato salads, but the rest of the ingredients in the classic horiatiki ($7.95) - thinly sliced peppers, cucumber, onions, oregano, olives and feta - were delicious enough to carry the dish. Better to choose the spectacular butter-tender grilled octopus salad ($12.50) tossed with baby frisee, roasted peppers and a sparkling vinaigrette.

In most Greek meals, the main courses never seem to be as engaging as the mezethes, but Kokkari has some stars. The moussaka ($15.75) is wonderful here, baked and served in its own stunning blue pottery bowl, layered with potatoes as well as lamb and and eggplant, and topped with a tart yogurt bechamel. A lamb shank ($16.75) infused with cinnamon, is both tender and flavorful. Especially good is its bed of orzo cooked in rich stock.

Cinnamon also seasons braised rabbit cooked with okra, pearl onions and tomato ($17.50). As in many stews, the meat is somewhat sacrificed to make the vegetables fabulous. Quail stuffed with lots of winter greens ($18.50) offers another dish in which vegetables star, though in this case the quail keeps its character. A wild rice and orzo pilaf enriched with stock complete the dish. For fish eaters, a thin slice of juicy, meaty swordfish sauced with Meyer lemon vinaigrette ($18.75) seemed to melt into caper mashed potatoes.

These accomplished main courses owe as much to California and France as to Greece in execution. It turns out that Kokkari's chef, Jean Alberti, is a Frenchman with classical French hotel school training who has worked in restaurants throughout Europe and America. He knows how to make food taste and look good, no matter what its ethnicity.

I suppose one criticism that can be made is that the cooking here is a blend of cuisines, not the pure, rustic, Greek food you would find in Greek tavernas, for example. My Grecophile husband groused that there weren't enough authentic dishes on the Kokkari menu, comparing it to the benchmark Greek restaurant in Manhattan, Molyvos, where he tends to stay all day.

I think there's plenty of soulful Greek cooking at Kokkari. If a little local frisee sneaks onto a plate of fried smelt, what's the harm? If orzo is infused with meat stock, so what? Like the decor, the food presents a Grecian fantasy. And as Diane Kochilas points out in her classic cookbook, "The Food and Wine of Greece," even the Greeks are using their native ingredients in new ways these days.

For an aperitif, you may choose from eight different ouzos (all $6) served straight up with water on the side, or mixed with a little ice water. You have to like licorice to appreciate it. An ample Greek and California wine list offers nine Greek whites and 10 Greek reds. If you prefer wines of international quality (as opposed to more local wines like retsina, which always taste better if you drink them where they're made), try the stylish Cheateau Julia Chardonnay from Adriani, 1996 ($7 glass / $27 a bottle) or a full-bodied Xinomavro Merlot from a big commercial producer, J. Boutari, 1994 ($8 glass / $34 bottle).

Dessert ($6) is something to look forward to at Kokkari. Though they resemble nothing I've ever had in Greece, they do use traditional Greek ingredients: a creamy yogurt sorbet scattered with tangerine granita; airy, hot, apple fritters moistened with apple syrup served with honey ice cream; a bastela of crispy filo pastry separated by vanilla custard and spiced nuts drizzled with caramel. They're all dreamy.

If you're a Greek coffee ($4) afficionado, Kokkari makes the real thing in a heated sand pit. Stoneground coffee is mixed with water and sugar in special, long-handled metal pots and put to boil in the sand, which produces an especially unctuous and aromatic brew that is then poured into a demitasse.

We've had such a culinary fixation on the French and Italian Mediterranean around here that I, for one, am ecstatic to be moving East to Greece and the Aegean. The Levantine overtones in this cooking make it all the more interesting, and Kokkari's kitchen has the skill to transform the raw materials available here into dishes that reveal interesting facets of the Greek kitchen. Frankly, the artful food works in this sophisticated restaurant. Somehow slabs of grilled octopus and salted cucumber with ouzo taste better when eaten by sea.

LOCATION: 200 Jackson St. (at Front)
PHONE: (415) 981-0983
HOURS: Lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to midnight; closed Sunday
PARKING: Valet or on street
AMBIENCE: A romantic Greek villa
SERVICE: Professional and gracious
RECOMMENDED DISHES: Greek dips; fried smelt; octopus salad; moussaka; lamb shank; swordfish, yogurt sorbet with tangerine granita
UPSIDE: Beautiful Greek food and surroundings
DOWNSIDE: Very crowded already
COMMENT: Everything that ends up on the table, from hand-made ceramics to olives, delights.

The Examiner's price-rating system follows: $ Inexpensive (less than $15 a person for dinner, exclusive of drinks, tax and tip) $$ Moderate ($15 to $35 a person) $$$ Expensive (more than $35 a person)
*Fair **Good ***Excellent ****Magnifique!