By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
Taverna Opa is perfectly named, the word "opa" being a carefree yelp of joy -- the Greek version of "yippee!" The place sizzles like lamb on a spit -- Middle Eastern music blares, belly dancers jingle, patrons partake of Greek tabletop dancing, fire-grilled foods emit aromatic smoke balls, hundreds of paper napkins descend like giant confetti, and claps and shouts of "opa! opa! opa!" carom off the walls. As we sat down amid the mayhem I turned to my wife for reassurance that we hadn't accidentally wandered into a Greek bullfight or ticker tape parade.
I was being a little sarcastic, which I'm apt to do on an empty stomach. After we were served warm French rolls; a wooden mortar filled with chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic; and a pestle to pulverize it to our preferred degree of paste, and by the time we had tasted a few mesmerizing mezés, I was singing a different tune: "opa! opa! opa!"
I'm speaking of the Taverna that recently opened at the tip of South Beach, though the same words could apply to the first branch in Hollywood, or the second in Fort Lauderdale. Napkin throwing, plate smashing, table dancing, and a celebratory scene are as integral to Opa's smashingly successful formula as its tzatziki and kebabs. If you're in the mood to party, by all means take advantage of this raucously fun atmosphere. If you desire a quieter environment, try dining early on a weeknight evening, or opt for Opa's open-air patio in back, where the music is muted, shenanigans limited, and the ambiance reminiscent of those simple restaurant courtyards prevalent on the Greek islands.
If I seem to be encouraging the mellower side of Taverna, it's because the food here deserves attention, starting with some 30 types of mezé that provide appetizing tidbits for every taste. Traditional standards like melitzanosalata (grilled eggplant with lemon, garlic, and parsley), taramasalata (creamy carp roe dip), tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber, garlic, and dill), and spanakopita (spinach, leeks, and feta in rich, soft, housemade phyllo) all possessed fresh, clean tastes. The feta was better than average too, a Greek brand but similar to the creamier-textured French. You can get a side of the cheese on its own, or have it atop your horiatiki (Greek salad), splashed with a cumin-tinged lemon-oregano vinaigrette.
Meatballs of beef, onion, and kasseri cheese (keftedes) were well-spiced, but sauceless meatballs have always seemed a dull idea. More alluring choices include GIANT grilled prawns; a trio of fairly large grilled sardines; a generous portion of grilled ribeye tips; crisp calamari; a tart, savory salad of fava beans, potatoes, tomato, and scallions; and smoky, juicy, oak-grilled quail nestled in robust roasted peppers.
It would not be a bad idea to order a whole medley of mezé and eschew main courses altogether, except that entrées are fairly compelling as well. This is everyday food for locals, with simple ingredients and minimal preparation -- like you'd find at the sort of Greek inn Opa is trying to emulate. Snapper, sea bass, salmon, swordfish, and jumbo shrimp are mostly marinated and grilled over oak wood with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and herbs. That's all they need, though the marinade didn't seem to penetrate thick, meaty, but ultimately bland fillets of whole snapper.
Wood-fired flavor likewise defines grilled filet mignon, ribeye, pork loin, and a juicy, lemony half-chicken that came sided by inedibly salty roasted lemon potato wedges. Lamb dishes include grilled chops (tender) or steak (chewier), braised shanks, and four big flavorful hunks of spit-fired, roasted leg of lamb (they'll roast an entire lamb for your party on 24 hours notice). Also a "moussaka soufflé" whose topping didn't quite rise to its billing, but the rest of the dish was splendid, from the base of softly cooked potatoes imbued with absorbed juices, to the layer of mildly roasted eggplant, to the assertively seasoned ground beef and lamb filling, all benefiting from a boost of tomatoes and béchamel sauce.
Alain Ducasse, speaking of Mediterranean cuisine, said, "Once you've decided to put a casserole on the table with a few vegetables and a drizzle of lemon, it has to be absolutely perfect -- the absolute crystal truth of taste." Taverna's food isn't perfect, but for the most part emanates impressively honest flavors. And the prices are easy on the pocket: Most mezé and salads are under $5, and only five of the twenty entrées are over $13 (none is more than $19).
One person at our table griped that the vanilla custard portion of our galaktoboureko was parsimonious, but I think this may have been a matter of never having enough of a good thing. Other desserts include creamy rice pudding flecked with fresh vanilla, and a near-weightless wedge of walnut cake that would've been wonderful if not so wetted with sugar syrup.
When we visited Taverna on a busy night, the staff did a commendable job under far from ideal conditions -- dodging crowds, ducking napkins, placing plates between dancing feet, and so on. On a subsequent trip during a slower evening, waiters compensated by working slower and performing a lackluster job.