Good Spreads

Two Greek neighborhood restaurants prove the culinary value of conversation.

No matter how many visits I make or dishes I try, I can't pretend that restaurant reviewing is objective. It's an even more subjective form of criticism than reviewing a movie, where the entire audience sees the same thing, even if they interpret it a million different ways. So many one-off factors, having nothing to do with the food in front of me, influence my dining experience: the events of the day, for example, or whether the server and I get each other's sense of humor. Most importantly, the company I'm with. I set out to compare two small Greek restaurants, one a gyros-and-souvlaki place in West Seattle, the other a neo-Greek bistro in Roosevelt. Neither Kokoras Greek Grill nor Divine is aiming to stake out new culinary territory. But both reminded me what a good neighborhood restaurant can do: make you forget that you and the owner are conducting a business transaction, and make you remember how much you like the people with whom you're sharing the meal. At both places, I noticed, I kept forgetting I was on the job. The night my friends and I came in out of the rain at Kokoras, squirmy kid in tow, there were almost as many people waiting in the tiny dining room as there were eaters. The peach-colored restaurant, its walls a collage of Greek memorabilia and itstables shrouded in blue-checked tablecloths, was full up with families and couples, none of whom seemed to mind that our kid needed to say hi to each of them. Owners Demetra and Spiros Rouvas opened Kokoras in the former Manila Cafe four months ago after taking eight years off from the restaurant biz and moving back to Greece. Their food is well suited for a night out with the family: It's brawny and likable, piling big, simple flavors (grilled meat, yogurt, onions) on top of each other. If you bring a big enough group, maybe start your meal with an appetizer combo: eggplant salad, skordalia (a potato-garlic spread), calamari, and taramosalata (smoked carp roe whipped with oil and lemon) that you scoop up with stacks and stacks of warm, soft pita. Maybe finish it with a slice of OK chocolate cake, or if you're smarter, a cube of nutty, sticky baklava. But you don't need to, because Kokoras' main courses are affordable and gigantic. Most meals start with a platter of salad, and once you've made your way through as much of it as you can, the biceps-building waitresses haul out dinner plates that are big enough to be considered buffets, heaped high with grilled meats (pork, beef, lamb, the lamb-beef concoction calledgyros) and thick-cut fries garnished with swirls of yogurt and crumbled cheese. The sandwiches are more like oversize tostadas with pita-bread bottoms. Forks and knives are necessary, because there's no way you can fold all that meat, lettuce, onion, tangy tzatziki sauce, and feta into an edible U unless you're wearing plastic gloves and a bib. But the ingredient mix is right on, and the veggie version, with creamy roasted eggplant and sweet red peppers, is just as good, if not better. Maybe you order a bottle of Greek red wine that's just as broadly affable as the food. Maybe you talk across the room to your neighbors. Maybe you and your companion, long after the waitress has dropped off your bucket of leftovers, get wrapped up in the aimless pleasureof a rambling conversation. It's that kind of place. Divine, on Roosevelt and 79th, which opened in October last year, aims higher. Owners Vivian and Zach Peterson and Broc Thompson call their food "Greekfusion," an alloy of Greek cuisine (some of it prepared by Vivian's mother, Titika Vlahos) and what West Coast diners like to think of as "Mediterranean": arugula salad with pears, baked white beanswith tomatoes, chocolate mousse. The menu is designed for a casual night out, with big sections for mezze (small plates)and "spreads." My friends and I started the meal with a pleasant romaine salad with radishes and a dill-flecked vinaigrette, and used slices of country-style bread to whittle down three mounded spreads: a sadly unfishy taramosalata, a better puree of roasted eggplant enriched with ground walnuts, and a sharp, bright feta spread blended with garlic, more garlic, and roasted poblano peppers. We ended the meal with loukoumades—hot fritters with custardy, yeasty centers, which we rolled around the plate to coat each round in as much honey as it could soak up. If this was Greek fusion, I was firmly in favor. Several of the entrées I tried, though, were composed of ingredients moreanonymous than Mediterranean. A grilled chicken breast was fine—not tender, not tough. But the roasted mushrooms, artichoke hearts, and tomatoes that buriedthe meat had no seasoning. Even the friedpotatoes that came with the chicken didn't score. A pan-roasted portobello mushroom, propped up on deep-fried polenta-artichoke squares, hadn't been cooked long enough for the mushroom to break down and express its meaty juices, and the portobello didn't commune with the basil pesto and roasted red pepper puree drizzled on top. Redeeming both was the lamb shank with tomatoes and peas, all fused together in the longest of braisings. The dish was earthy, simple, fantastic. It had heart. I don't generally have much patience for failure when I'm paying more than 10 bucks for a dish. But for some reason, even when the cooks didn't pull off what they were attempting I still left Divine satisfied. It could have been the space—a converted house with eccentrically configured rooms done up in rich taupes—and it could have been the fact that our waiter and the host both gave us the impression that they were shepherding us through our meal, not just delivering food. But mostly it was my friends. Tucked away in the back room, in a one-table nook that looked out onto the patio, we talked about our HGTV addiction, house hunting in West Seattle, and my upcoming vacation. Nothing significant, but the conversation might not have felt so relaxed and comfortable in another room, over other food. That rare sense of sitting around a table, companionably and without hurry, seems to me the umami of hospitality, the indefinable sign that a restaurant's doing something right.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow