[ review ]
At Opa, nobody dashes plates upon the floor — that would damage the smooth-as-caramel hardwood. Nobody tosses the dish towel napkins toward Olympus — a definite fire hazard if you're sitting near the wall of votive candles. Nobody dances on the oak tables — just think of the scratches!
It's a scene at this lively, stylish Midtown Village newcomer, all right, but not in the ways that pop culture would have you think. In the Jun Aizaki-designed dining room, modern-day Aphrodites and Adonises gather under the square bar's thatched-birch canopy, toes of their Chucks and pumps nuzzling the river-rock-encrusted structure. Lavender, Aperol and Meyer lemon cocktails adorn the quartzy white Corian countertop. Twenty-two terra-cotta lamps drip from the ceiling. A screen of iron bubbles, filled here and there with cobalt and aqua glass, affect the ocean on the whitewashed brick. And some of the wood you see was salvaged from the stable of Barbaro.
In other words, imagine every stereotype of Greek restaurants, slide them onto a skewer and burn them. Because Opa is not that kind of place.
Not that there's anything wrong with that, concedes George Tsiouris, who opened Opa with his sister, Vasiliki, in February. "In fact," he says, "we've thought about doing a second restaurant that is so over-the-top Greek."
Hold your Trojan horses. A few things at the Tsiouris' flagship need attention first, overcooked striper fillets for starters. Undercooked red onions and green bell peppers on the vegetarian souvlakia, too. The trio of spreads made me wish I was digging instead into Kanella's Dips of the Day: tzatziki so dilly it's silly, an abrasive hot sauce-and-feta situation, and hummus lashed with smoked paprika and cumin. I liked the aggressive spice in the hummus, but not the texture: Gerber-smooth, yet oddly stiff.
Fortunately, complaints end there. The rest of the food I ate was cool, smart and honest — "traditional recipes freshened up," says Tsiouris, a 21st-century update on classics he and Vasiliki grew up eating.
Before Opa, chef Andrew Brown, a veteran of White Dog Café and Alison Two, had never cooked Greek food. Based on the brash charm of his ouzo-infused tomato sauce (beneath lovely mint-flecked veal meatballs) or how his saganaki oozed just so, you would never know. The aforementioned slips were more a problem with execution than conviction, and after two dinners, it's evident Brown is cooking with an Athenian matriarch's confidence — a swagger no doubt entrenched during "basic training" with Sergeant Chrisoula Tsiouris, George and Vasiliki's mom. "She showed me some tricks," laughs Brown.
But dude's got some of his own, too. His octopus is the best I've had in Philly, or anywhere, reason enough to resist the magnetic allure of 13th Street's sirens, make a left on Sansom and head into this onetime blueprint press. "I've spent six or seven years trying to get it right," Brown says of his octo game, which involves two days and six steps: brine, braise (in red wine and cork, per tradition), chill, clean, marinate and grill until the tentacle tips curl into tight fiddlehead fists.
The knife slipped as easily into one of those legs as the bow of Prince Eric's storm-tossed ship into Ursula's muffin-top, the brine a more effective tenderizer than the superstitious cork — or a rock beating, the preferred Mediterranean technique. Reducing this ugly, rubber-legged sea beast to such acquiescent morsels is a feat in itself, but Brown earns double points for flavor: smoky, with a resounding twang from the lingering wine and fresh splash of lemon. That the octo chaperones a sherry- and coriander-kissed chickpea "fondue" is just gravy.
Rabbit is another favorite, of both mine and Brown's. "Everywhere I've cooked, I've always used it," he says, and he's got the walk — succulent braised meat that sent smoke signals of cinnamon and bay through a nest of fresh noodles — to back up the talk. Souvlakia (yogurt-marinated chicken, pork or vegetables flamed with house harissa) channeled the street with hard-won char and price (just $3 a stick), while the big-ticket daurade, roasted and served head-to-tail above lemony potatoes and earthy braised rainbow chard, was a celebration of the ocean.
On the topic of head-to-tail, the funky-fresh kokoretsi is the epitome of waste-not peasant cooking: an olive-oiled, lemon-rubbed, grilled and twice-roasted loaf of lamb sweetbreads, liver and heart wrapped first in caul fat, then in intestines. "We really felt like it was important to have [kokoretsi] on the menu," Tsiouris says, but making it requires skill few possess. So they get it from a Greek butcher in Queens, and I'm not complaining.
Since I've eaten at Opa, the kokoretsi has been tweaked, and Tsiouris and Brown claim it's even better than before. I'll check it out next time, but it'll be a challenge not to skip straight to the walnut baklava (mom's recipe and airier than most) astride sticky fig ice cream. Fried-dough puffs (loukoumades) tasted like boardwalk funnel cake, with the Aegean additions of creamed spiced banana and molten Merenda, Nutella's Greek cousin.
But my favorite was the yogurt: strata of thick Fage, clover honey, walnuts and housemade preserve-like spoon sweets tucked neatly into mason jars — like something your mom would pack you for lunch, if your mom was Greek and grew her own berries. I loved this dessert so much I ordered it twice, once with inky blueberry, another time with juicy cherry. I would love it even more if Brown made his own yogurt. For a restaurant looking to interpret ancient recipes through the culinary zeitgeist, that's a layup, and I don't think too much to ask.
Opa | 1311 Sansom St., 215-545-0170, opaphiladelphia.com, twitter.com/opaphiladelphia. Dinner served Mon.-Thu., 5-11 p.m.; Fri-Sat., 5-midnight; closed Sun. Appetizers, $3-$14; entrées, $11-$24; desserts, $6-$8.