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[whitespace] Oils Food of the Gods: Classic Greek meets California fresh--for a price--in this now-legendary Emerson Street eatery.

Photograph by George Sakkestad

Aegean Eden

Palo Alto's red hot Evvia puts fashionable spin on some classics of the robust Mediterranean dining repertoire

By Christina Waters

BIG LEAGUE ATMOSPHERE often entails big league prices, and Evvia is no exception. Some--including most of the greater Bay Area packed into and spilling out onto the street in front of Evvia last week--feel that vivacious food and fashionable ambience more than justify top dollar menu pricing. We went along with that philosophy as we joined what appeared to be a taverna full of foodies intent on dining a la Zorba, at prices a la Onassis. Socrates in his gadfly prime couldn't have had more fun than we did, aided and abetted by expert service, a terrific bottle of David Bruce Pinot Noir 1998 ($59) and some truly zesty dishes that spoke Greek with a California accent.

The highly discerning Audrey (an Evvia veteran with a palate permanently dialed to "fast forward") reasoned that classic dishes form the foundation of a restaurant's reputation. So we began with a platter of grilled octopus ($13.50), a dreamy version of spanakopita ($8.95) and something rather more local in the way of shrimp and lobster cakes ($10.95). Lovely bread accompanied all of this, along with a pool of rather tame olive oil that shied away from the bold fruitiness of the best Greek offerings.

Our companion Hanna was right--the feather-light seafood cakes lacked any clear identity. The accompanying "salsa" encouraged the generic effect and there was far too little of the mint yogurt accompaniment. The delicate filo triangles, however, stuffed with amazingly creamy feta but too little spinach, were definitive. Light and crisp--addictive. I loved the tender, marinated grilled octopus and the accompanying toss of frisée and olives--it stood up nicely to memories of octapodi salata I'd sampled in Crete. But the boldest flavors were yet to come.

Gorgeously served and presented, our three entrees underscored Evvia's legendary status with its savvy clientele. Hanna's whole striped bass--mesquite grilled and creamy sweet--was, as in my past experiences at Evvia, the very apex of the meal (at $33.95, it damn well should have been). Served in an oval platter, embraced by lemon and sautéed bitter greens, it was miraculous seafood prepared with skill and integrity. My copper tureen of black lentils, cherry tomatoes and figs ($26.95) was laced with Meyer lemon yogurt and baby shallots and topped with slices of crimson wild boar--to die for, if I may revive a pet slogan of the '80s. Another creation of seared olive-encrusted Chilean sea bass had even the highly critical Audrey cooing happily ($26.95). Indeed it was absolutely sumptuous, although the closest it got to Greece was its bed of ratatouille and drizzle of pesto. With it came a witty and gossamer cabbage roll stuffed with black lentils, of which Hanna observed: "We've gotten pretty far from the Aegean." Maybe we had. But we didn't much care. Here were gorgeous dishes, deep in the dialectics of flavor upon flavor and enhanced by those wild Hellenic touches of mint, dill and oregano. A splendid lemon and oregano vinaigrette splashed sunshine throughout the succulent striped bass, while the sweet bite of roasted figs added mystery and intrigue to my rich game dish. We were impressed. And so it was on to espresso and two choice desserts ($8 each). Ever the purist, Audrey chose baklava, while Hanna and I split an unusual creation of yogurt sorbet in a crisp tuile surrounded by fresh oranges in cointreau. The latter was a bit overwrought and the sorbet languishing somewhere between creamy and icy, but the baklava was Platonic perfection. Sided by a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream, the crisp, nutty pastry was light and noncloying. A baklava that wasn't too sweet! Surely this was a concept born on Mt. Olympus--but available at Evvia. We all agreed that this was archetypal baklava, a pastry that positively demolished any stereotype we might have about overly-gooey, overly-sweet Aegean desserts. Evvia is thunderously popular with peninsula faithful. Finding out why it's still at the top was one of my happiest assignments this year. Efharistoume!

Address: 420 Emerson St., Palo Alto
Phone: 650.326.0983
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-2pm Mon-Fri; dinner 5:30-10pm Mon-Thu, 5-11pm Fri-Sat, 5-9pm Sun
Cuisine: Greco-California
Entrees: $15.95-$33.95

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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