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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Medi-Cali: Upstart Thea serves sunshine twists on Mediterranean cuisine.

The Young Turk

Can't pronounce htipiti or cerkez tavugu? Doesn't matter— at Thea, just eat it.

By Stett Holbrook

SANTANA ROW isn't so much a mall as an adult food theme park. Instead of roller coaster rides, it features culinary attractions in the form of a number of diverse restaurants. A walk down the main drag offers a United Nations of dining choices including Singaporean, French, Mexican, Japanese, New England seafood and Italian. Many of its top draws, like Left Bank, Straits, Yankee Pier and Blowfish, are offshoots of existing Bay Area restaurants, and they give it the air of an upscale food court.

If you can get past the master-planned feel of the place, there's some good food to be had. With the opening of Thea restaurant in May, Santana Row's global village now includes Turkish and Greek food.

Thea is owned by the same folks who run Consuelo Mexican Bistro across the street. It's named after a Greek goddess and mythical mother to sun, moon and dawn. Owners Eduardo and Sylvia Rallo tapped former Boulevard executive sous-chef Alex Padilla to run the kitchen. Padilla, who was born in Honduras but raised in Houston, traveled in Greece and Turkey before opening Thea and takes some of his recipes and inspiration from his travels.

Some dishes, however, have a tenuous connection to the eastern Mediterranean. While good, the roasted pork chop with green beans, Turkish figs and rhubarb chutney ($17) seems to have more in common with California than with Turkey or Greece. I doubt the double-cut chop is typical fare in Istanbul or Athens. The accompanying fruits provided an interesting foil for the pork, but the pork chop itself was rather unremarkable. The dish could have come from any of a dozen Mediterranean-inspired restaurants that have come to define contemporary pan-Mediterranean California restaurants.

The same goes for the pan-seared halibut with eggplant purée, asparagus and black olive oil ($19). While eggplant and black Kalamata olive oil were a nod to Greece, halibut and asparagus do not conjure up thoughts of Mediterranean dining in my mind. And Thea's wood-burning oven imparts a wonderful rustic quality to many dishes, but the choice of mesquite fuel roots some of the flavors in the American Southwest rather than the Mediterranean.

That said, there are plenty of dishes that provide a real culinary point of departure. Garides ($18) was just what I was looking for. Plump prawns pressed with sumac and other dried spices are roasted in the wood-burning oven and served atop a big zucchini cake. Shrimp are so often overpriced and overcooked, but here they're great. The spices and wood smoke impart a hearty but delicate flavor. The warm octopodaki ($8) salad is another winner. Grilled chunks of meaty octopus are molded into a cake-shaped mound of lemony red and yellow bell pepper relish. It's a refreshing yet bold dish that makes me wish more restaurants served octopus.

The pillowy, oval-shaped pita bread served right out of the wood oven is great, especially with one of Thea's good but hard to pronounce dips like htipiti ($8), made of whipped feta cheese, roasted red peppers, olive oil and harissa, or cerkez tavugu ($8), roasted chicken blended with walnuts.

Moussaka ($14) is a Greek restaurant standard, but here it's like tasting it for the first time because it's so good. Ground lamb and beef are baked with thin slices of eggplant and topped with a rich béchamel sauce and seasoned with cinnamon, clove and other alluring spices.

My favorite entree was the fish of the day, listed on the menu as psari skordato. ($25). A whole branzini (farm-raised Mediterranean sea bass), head and all, is seasoned with just olive oil, lemon, garlic and herbs and topped with a sprinkling of salty-sour preserved lemons. The fish was beautifully charred outside and the meat sweet, meaty and moist. This is the kind of meal I imagine eating in a simple Greek restaurant overlooking the blue Mediterranean. And it was especially good with a glass of a Skouras Moschofilero Roditis ($7 a glass, $24 bottle), a crisp, flinty white wine. Greek wine is something of a rarity in the United States, and I was pleased to see several bottles on Thea's short wine list. I skipped the retsina, Greece's turpentine-flavored national wine, but there are other wines that are more acceptable to Western palates.

Thea's dining room is beautiful. Original plans called for a second floor, but they were scrapped after the owners had difficulty getting approval from the city. As a result, Thea has soaring ceilings from which hang ornate metal chandeliers, giving the space a breezy, expansive feel. Like most Santana Row restaurants, Thea has plenty of outdoor seating.

In spite of a few shortcomings, Thea has emerged as a notable attraction at Santana Row's culinary amusement park.

Address: 3090 Olsen Dr., San Jose.
Phone: 408.260.1444.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Cuisine: Greek and Turkish.
Price Range: $14-$25.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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