Keen on the Aegean

On Corfu, as on many Greek islands, where one lodges determines the breadth of experiences one may have. We were staying at Maria's Place, a neon-pink shack that stood directly on the gold table of beach, and we were content. But the infallible romance of a full moon and strolls on the sand can begin to bore after a while. And as a fellow traveler explained, "You just gotta try the Ouzo Circle, man. You just gotta." So we shouldered our backpacks and transferred to the Pink (a color as everpresent as in the Deco District) Palace, an international circus of students all looking for the same party.

Meals at the Palace were a communal A and not very tasty A affair. Dessert was the reason everyone gathered. They would form a riotous circle, which the staff toured with a bucket full of ouzo, and a goosed up game of "duck-duck-goose" ensued. Everyone eventually received a shot of the clear, anise-flavored liqueur followed immediately by a ceramic plate smashed over their skull. Even without the dinnerware, the stuff packed a wallop.

Needless to say, perhaps, by the time the bucket was empty all participants who wanted to imbibe had downed several snorts, and had received an equal number of bashes to the noggin. (The combo makes for a doozy of a morning after, although it didn't stop us from returning again and again.) But the evening's entertainment had not yet begun.

A chair was placed atop a table. Atop the chair, six open bottles of beer were set, and on each of the four corners of the table, a bowl of flaming ouzo. The owner of the Pink Palace, a sweating man whom you might have taken for 60 but was actually in his mid-thirties, stood beside this odd array. He snarfed a shot of ouzo without using his hands, picking up the glass with his teeth instead. Then he bent down, and with the same agile mouth, grasped the edge of the table between his steely jaws. When he straightened, he was balancing the entire table A beer bottles, chair, ouzo flambe, and all A with his incredibly durable dentition. Not a drop had spilled, nothing had so much as shifted position. Slowly at first, then faster in time to the whirling music, the toothy titan began to dance around the circle of guests, carrying the table like a dog mouths a bone. All the while, a staff member followed, crushing plate after plate over his pate. A weird test of endurance, to be sure.

Years later, I still cherish a piece of the plate to which I submitted my scalp. And although I know countless others have traversed the Ouzo Circle at the Pink Palace, I've always felt that my time on Corfu was unique, and not repeatable. But I did experience a flashback upon entering Vakhos, a Greek establishment that opened this past January in Coral Gables. They were playing the same tune we heard night after night at the Ouzo Circle.

Of course, there are differences. Chef/owner Fotis Stavrinos hails from Lesbos, not Corfu, which is off the opposite coast of the mainland. Second, Stavrinos doesn't need to carry a table in his mouth to command the attention of his clientele A his recipes are impressive enough. And finally, Stavrinos's restaurant serves beer and wine instead of ouzo straight up. The wine list, while not overwhelmingly large, is all Greek A appropriate, considering that Greece ranks eleventh in the world in wine production, and that Lesbos numbers among the more prominent grape-growing regions.

Among the imports are the whites and light reds of Demestica (the Peloponnesian area), the sweet white Muscat of Samos (an island in the Aegean south of Lesbos, near Turkey), and a red from Naousa (northern Macedonia). But the greatest surprise was the reasonable Retsina, a white wine flavored with pine resin. Admittedly an acquired taste, this beverage is a holdover from the days when wine was stored in jars lined with tar as a preservative. The Greeks still enjoy their wine with this harsh bouquet, which the uninitiated may find reminiscent of turpentine. (A popular way to drink Retsina is to mix it one-to-two with Sprite and shoot it like the Palace crowd did ouzo. Apparently it imparts a mean buzz, though I don't know for certain.)

Vakhos re-creates as closely as possible the architecure of the islands. The ceiling isn't domed, but it is a wonderful Grecian blue; the rug is the same rich hue. Walls are stark white, hung sparsely with Greek-influenced prints. Hanging plants and basket-weave lights add further accents, and standing trees create an outdoor feel to the spacious-for-the-Gables dining room.

Owner Stavrinos is a handsome, personable presence, sweeping in from the kitchen, greeting regular customers (repeat business is already a phenomenon), introducing himself to first-timers. Special orders are no problem. He baked us a moussaka A a lasagna of potatoes, eggplant, ground beef, and white cream sauce, doused heavily with olive oil A without the bechamel lid, and without a qualm. A veteran of restaurants in Chicago and Japan (where he lived for eleven years), Stavrinos knows two things: how to prepare authentic Greek cuisine, and how to encourage business. He also knows three languages A Greek, English, and Japanese. Given the restaurant's proximity to the Gables business district, the Japanese may come in handy. Now, he says, he'll learn Spanish. It may take him a couple of months.

If cuisine continues as fresh and genuine, he should have years to translate "Greek salad" into ensalada griega. Diners of all nationalities have already discovered that the sfirida ala spetchoita, a meaty, flaky slice of red snapper baked with tomato sauce, white wine, and herbs, is a bargain, as is most everything on the menu. Servings are generous, with boiled, garlic-and-lemon-flavored potatoes on the side.

Also prepared with garlic, roasted to mellow some of its harsher tendencies, are rare slices of spring lamb. And if a diner remarks about its perfection, he's liable to reply that his people have always eaten lamb, and plenty of it A so they ought to know how to cook it right. He certainly does.

But what remains my favorite is the item we ate constantly in Greece. Our days commonly began with a late-morning meal of crusty bread and creamy tzatziki, a dip made of yogurt, cucumber, and garlic. It's difficult to find good tzatziki in the States; the yogurt tends to be too thin and runny. Heavy, drained Greek yogurt is best, and just a dash of vinegar. Stavrinos adds dill to his version, sparking it with the taste of spring, and olive oil, an ingredient that garnishes almost every dish.

Diners, particularly those with sensitive digestions, should be aware that liberal amounts of olive oil are used in Greek cookery, thanks to Athens's prowess in pressing the fruit. In delicate dishes A such as the fresh swordfish shish kebab A a light flavor of oil, from first pressings, is often employed. For meatier dishes, including the marinated lamb chops and the pastitsio (thick spaghetti and ground beef au gratin), an oil with a darker, sweeter flavor is preferred. But it's always one of the two.

The other truly marvelous dish at Vakhos is the spanakopita, or spinach pie. Light phyllo dough gently ensconces boiled spinach mixed with butter and feta cheese. The pastry is then baked until crisp. In Greece, my husband and I were surprised to discover that different islands had various indigenous specialties. For instance, spinach and chicken pies were road-stand delicacies in Corfu, but there was no sign of them in Santorini. The same was true for gyros, or souvlaki in pita (which seem more common in America than they did in Greece). In hindsight, though, it was naive to expect that each of these geographically separated islands should have the same cuisine.

As always, dessert is an important decision. At Vakhos the question isn't what to order A the choice is between two types of pastry in a thin, heated honey syrup: baklava and an astoundingly delicate galakto bourico A it's how many. On our second visit, my husband had his dessert twice, for which I can't fault him. I wanted my whole meal again.


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