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Venturous Vasili's

Robert Scheer

Trojan Lamb: The joyous Vasili Karagiannopoulos, owner of Vasili's Restaurant, and his staff are experts at preparing tasty Greek gifts, like this platter of roast legs of lamb, for their loyal diners.

Once again we discover that it's just not possible to have a bad time at the irrepressibly earthy taverna on Mission Street

By Christina Waters

TO WATCH SULLY GESTURING wildly in between bites of Greek salad, you wouldn't have guessed it had been over 25 years since his Fulbright year in Rumania, a year he was reliving with wild-eyed abandon over dinner at Vasili's. This is Sully's favorite Santa Cruz restaurant, and just the thought of grilled meat, bread and retsina had fired his memories of Eastern Europe.

Providing the background for his tales of Transylvanian winters was the warm hearth that is Vasili's, lined--in more subdued style than I'd remembered--with photos, pottery and faux frescoes of Zorbaesque dancers. The place was packed with regulars, everybody talking and laughing.

It was definitely a retsina night, we agreed. The pine-scented national libation ($3) is astringent enough to play off the creamy potato and garlic aioli known as skordalia ($2.95), so addictively accessed with big squares of sourdough. We also dipped from the heroic mound of bread into tangy cucumber-laced yogurt--the justly famous tzatziki ($3.50)-and chattered about life along the Black Sea.

Sully squeezed six slices of lemon over our generous platter of sautéed calamari ($6.25). Once done, and with just a tiny touch of salt, the tender squid was perfect, all luscious in olive oil, butter, oregano and plenty of garlic. Like my dinner partner, I adore the big-hearted flavors of Greece--oregano, thyme, garlic, lemon--all of which have a passionate alliance with retsina.

Sully is a caper aficionado and doesn't in the least mind paying the extra 50 cents to have his Greek salad ($3) of crudely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and Bermuda onions liberally adorned with capers. The extravagant flavor of Greek olives, a few pepperoncini and some chunks of piquant feta cheese added punch to the salad and to the next round of tales that Sully was feverishly illustrating with little napkin drawings.

By the time we took possession of our skewers of country-style pork shishkebob ($3.25)--fragrant with thyme and a lemony marinade--my fellow traveler was putting top-spin on his true-life saga of being arrested for photographing the skull of a cow. This confession reduced us to uncontrollable laughter, which in turn produced a sort of cascade effect of chuckles throughout the room. But then, that always seems to happen at Vasili's, a place more mood elevating than Prozac and twice as tasty. The pork was as good as the cow-skull story. A side order of potatoes ($2.75)--turned to translucent gold through roasting with lemon and olive oil--made country magic with the delicious grilled meat.

Dessert? "Rice pudding," Sully whispered. Even though we'd plowed through enough food for a Socratic block party, we were up for some Greek coffee--thick, strong and sweet ($2)--and rice pudding ($2), a cross-cultural universal in the domain of male comfort food. Sully let out what sounded exactly like a bear grunt as he tasted the first bite of creamy, cinnamony pudding.

Vasili's is about having a good time. The food is honest, straightforward and earthy. A feeling of well-being unfolds throughout the meal, so that by the time you leave, you've actually become a better person than when you walked in the door. Which is precisely the whole point of the Greek dining experience.

Don't forget, Vasili's doesn't take credit cards, so hit the ATM before you dine. And there's deliciously rowdy live music on weekends--or any other time the owner decides is auspicious.

Address: 1501-A Mission St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 458-9808
Hours: Tue.-Sun. 5-9pm. (till 10pm Fri.-Sat.)
Price: Moderate
Chef: Vasili Karagiannopoulos
Ambiance: **1/2 Simple taverna/cafe atmosphere, with the real centerpiece being the conversation and the food
Service: **Sometimes there's a lag in the kitchen, and sometimes the hardworking waitstaff is pressed to accommodate you at exactly the minute you want them to--but, hey, relax
Cuisine: **1/2 Rustic, in general very appealing, the cuisine is long on the big-shouldered food of the Greek countryside with no pretense and few disappointments
Overall: Vasili's offers honest, happy flavors and that mysterious energy that is quintessentially Greek

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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