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As the sun serenely sets into the cerulean Mediterranean sea, a familiar refrain can be heard around dinner tables throughout Greece: "Moussaka again?" Sadly the 10 million inhabitants of this country, along with their ancestors, have over many a millennia accumulated only 14 recipes. They are good recipes, mind you, popular throughout the world: avgolemono soup; brandy-fired saganaki; melizanosalata; taramosalata; tzatziki; spanakopita; souvlaki; dolmades; pastitsio (and sister moussaka); grilled fish or shellfish with lemon, garlic, olive oil, and herbs; roast lamb with potatoes, lemon, garlic, olive oil, and herbs; Greek salad, which over there is called horiatiki (village salad); plus another one that at the moment escapes my mind.
Ouzo's Mediterranean Bistro, like the rest of our local Greek eateries, showcases all of the above dishes. So did the original Ouzo's Greek Taverna, which opened on Normandy Circle in 2002. Husband-and-wife proprietors Liza and Gigi moved their restaurant to the west SoBe space two months ago. The décor isn't as taverna-ish as it once was; only a rounded-archway alcove and one blue wall radiate any Mediterranean warmth. Otherwise it's a neat and simple room with lots of windows and two TV screens — presumably for patrons bored with food and company.
Ouzo's has gone south in more ways than one. A basket mixed with soft, crisp, and semi-crisp pita triangles didn't quite match the menu description of "warm pita slices." Too bad, because fresh, heated bread would have enhanced a mixed dip platter encompassing hummus; grilled eggplant chopped with garlic and olive oil (melizanosalata); Greek yogurt puréed with garlic and cucumbers (tzatziki); and fish roe with lemon juice and olive oil (taramosalata). The lone lackluster component of the combo was tabbouleh: The mint-speckled cracked wheat was dry as sand.
Ouzo's "Greek Village" salad was prepared in advance and stored in the fridge, so everything was ice-cold in the frigid bowl. The medley was dominated by cucumber slices and wedges of red, pulpy tomatoes a few degrees short of frozen. A few strings of red onion and red pepper were tossed in, plus four or five kalamata olives huddled under two planks of feta cheese. A bottle of lemon-tinted olive oil was placed alongside the undressed assemblage.
The best of the appetizers were tender tentacles of grilled octopus with lemon juice and olive oil, as well as avgolemono soup, its velvety rice-and-chicken-stocked base eliciting a lovely lemony tang. Four cleanly fried balls of spinach flecked with feta cheese were well executed but lacked gusto, while pale ringlets of fried calamari were missing tentacles, hinting at frozen, presliced Sysco origins.
We were looking forward most to a starter of grilled sardines, but Ouzo's was out. Our substitute, "baked eggplant rolls" — two undercooked slices of the vegetable wrapped around a sparse sprinkling of feta — didn't impress.
The whole striped sea bass was fresh and assertively grilled. We also liked the braised lamb shank, succulent morsels of meat falling from the bone into garbanzo-dotted moist rice. Moussaka, though, tasted old; the lethargically seasoned beef came capped by a lukewarm custard of béchamel.
Entrées are à la carte, but I can't recommend either of the sides we tried: Couscous was dry as the tabbouleh, and "grilled baby vegetables" were a moisture-free medley.
Ouzo's name change from "Greek Taverna" to "Mediterranean Bistro" widens the repertoire to include bouillabaisse, paella, salmon with "sweet-and-spicy" mustard sauce, and baby-back ribs. The owners are evidently attempting to expand their base, but this strategy makes less sense given that Sardinia, arguably Miami's best Med eatery, is located just down the block.
Desserts include standard versions of baklava and galaktoboureko, the latter a thick milk custard cuddled between two layers of baked phyllo dough. "Cappuccino" came as a sludgy Greek coffee topped with beige foam; avoid it at all costs (in this case, $4).
While Ouzo's has headed south, its prices have traveled in the opposite direction. It still isn't expensive, but entrées that cost $16 at the Normandy spot now go for $20-plus (the branzino was $28). Start with a $10 app, plump your à la carte plate with a $6 side, accessorize with a beverage or dessert, and when the bill comes, it will likely dawn on you that the cuisine really should be better than this.
Greece's national cookbook contains a lot more than 14 recipes. With desserts, it's 16. No, seriously, there are countless other native foods, like kolokythoanthoi (zucchini flowers stuffed with cracked wheat and feta cheese), the chickpea soup revithia from Sifnos islands, and stifado, a mountain stew of meat braised with red wine, cinnamon, and cloves — to name but a few. Yet our Greek restaurateurs, like the proprietors of Miami's other ethnic establishments, don't seem to believe their diners can handle true regional cooking. They might want to reconsider: Although Ouzo's has thus far been drawing a moderate number of diners, authenticity-steeped Sardinia keeps packing them in like sardines.