Opa melds traditional Greek flavors with contemporary attitude
The early omens at Opa were not good: My hot-pink "good luck" egg had broken.
In a Greek restaurant, where fortunes foretold by tradition can take on the weight of epic tragedy, I'm not sure it was wise to doom half the dining room to a year of rotten luck. But there we were under the watchful gaze of our eager waiter, pairing off to smack the ends of Greek Easter eggs together to determine which of us would emerge uncracked, with the victors to bask in a year of luck.
It's a good thing that I'm just not that into eggs, or at least the powers of egg-divination. Because it didn't take me long - maybe a Metaxa-spiked cocktail, an ouzo-sauced veal meatball, and some quick consoling from our server ("Uh, I don't think it means really bad luck . . .") - to see that Opa is, all in all, a lucky stroke indeed, for both Philly's expanding Greek dining scene and the red-hot nightlife zone at 13th and Sansom Streets.
The playful nod to tradition is especially endearing because Opa is ultimately a nod toward the present and future of Greek dining. The flavors may not be as profound as the updated rustic Cypriot fare over at Kanella (my current favorite in the genre). But siblings George and Vasiliki "V" Tsiouris, 35 and 32, are proud first-generation Greek Americans who have crafted an accessible restaurant lounge that manages in both its look and its cuisine to pay homage to their ethnic roots and also to feel at home in Center City, adding another unique flavor to this dynamic and youthful restaurant crossroads.
There are none of the plastic columns and broken-plate taverna cliches - or the diner fare - of previous generations (their father, Efthimios, owned the old-school Continental Inn in the Frankford section for many years). Instead, designer Jun Aizaki (of Amada and Zento fame) has channeled the hip young mood of Athens' trendy Gazi neighborhood for this 68-seat room. The space evokes familiar tones in sophisticated, modern ways, with cool Aegean-blue walls set against ivory curtains and whitewashed brick overlaid with steelwork shaped like bubbles. Votives flicker romantically from alcoves toward the back. A sleek central bar clad in white river stone, meanwhile, perfect for quick-bite concertgoers, sits beneath a rustic awning made from woven birch twigs.
The menu from chef Andrew Brown strives for that same aesthetic of updated authentic flavors. Brown, a 36-year-old veteran of the White Dog, Carmine's, London Grill, and Django, needed to go to Greek-kitchen boot camp with the Tsiouris' mom, Chrisoula, to learn the family recipes for everything from pastitsio to the killer spinach croquettes.
While this didn't come off entirely without a hitch, some of the best flavors here survived American translation just fine. Those crispy little spinach croquettes are a delightful change-up from the usual spinach pie, their creamy spinach-cheese centers set off by the earthiness of feta pureed with smoked paprika. The feta-stuffed zimi turnovers are just the kind of pastry hot pocket I'd likely devour at a Greek street fest. And anyone who thinks frying zucchini chips well is no small feat has never seen them go into a fryer only to emerge as one big clump. The zucchini chips here, each one hand-dipped into oregano batter and fried, are an addictive pretheater snack, stacked into a crunchy berm around a well of dill-scented yogurt dip.
The city's meatball frenzy should have another new darling to feast on here: The tender veal "keftedes," touched with brioche and mint, come bobbing in a cast-iron crock brimming with tomato-ouzo gravy. Our worthy burger repertoire has expanded, too, with "bifteki," a patty of Lancaster grass-fed beef that gets stuffed with oregano and feta, then topped with the juicy cucumber-relish crunch of a peasant salad.
As a traditionalist bred on Detroit's Greektown classics, though, I'll more likely gravitate toward the street foods I really obsessed over as a child: gyros and souvlakia.
Brown gives his gyros the trendy slider touch, with cocktail-size griddled pitas all rolled up snug with white paper. But it's the filling that made me happy - grilled-to-order strips of lamb leg marinated in the cuminy, smoked-paprika, oregano zest of a "Grecian" rub. Opa's souvlakia, meanwhile, offer flavorful tweaks to the sampled grilled-meat skewer, the chicken strips tenderized with yogurt and olive oil, the ground-pork skewer sizzling with the sweet heat of honeyed harissa.
There were a couple of minor stumbles on the menu. The pastitsio, a sort of Greek beef-a-roni topped with a layer of creamy béchamel, had all the right essential flavors, but not quite enough of the tomatoey gravy inside to keep it moist and greaseless. Our saganaki lacked the boozy-citrus aroma of the usual Metaxa-and-lemon flambee (and why, I must lament, do Philly restaurants never do this in the dining room!? Darn those fire codes). The big Colorado lamb shank for sharing was full of good flavor from its ouzo-spiked game-stock braise, but needed an hour longer in the oven to qualify as tender.
There were a couple of major stumbles, too, on dishes that could have been huge hits. Brown's flavorful octopus was thisclose to being spectacular, but it was brined too long in a fennel-cumin cure, rendering the finished morsels both salty and so soft they were almost mush. The chicken soup was an oddly confused riff on avgolemono, lacking lemony zing and milled to the disconcerting texture of orzo gruel. A dish that could potentially thrill Philly's small-yet-enthusiastic offal crowd - "kokoretsi" - brought a crispy tube of lamb intestines stuffed with heart, liver, and sweetbreads that was sadly overcooked to a gruesome grab bag of rubber parts.
Such flaws could easily be corrected through minor adjustments (though I'm guessing most Philadelphians will never be ready for a properly roasted kokoretsi). But Opa's kitchen already had more than enough successes to counter its goofs.
Brown's whole dorado was a nearly two-pound beauty worth sharing, its skin roasted to an olive-oiled crisp and its flesh juicy with Mediterranean flavor over mounds of lemony potatoes and braised Swiss chard. The kitchen didn't surgically fillet it like the whole-fish masters over at nearby Estia, but at $28 it was considerably less expensive. It was the service this time that seemed to fumble, as our otherwise charming and well-prepared server brought a comically small bowl for disposal of our bones.
For tidier fish eaters, Brown's wild striped bass was lusciously thick for $18, seared to a crackle over wilted spinach beside crispy sticks of polentalike chickpea souffle. For tamer game, meanwhile, there are whole rabbits, braised down into tender morsels that get ladled over house-made noodle ribbons in a stewy broth scented with cinnamon, capers, and olives.
Aside from the stylish cocktails touched with Hellenic accents to keep the bar happy, Opa makes the most of its small wine list with a smart assortment of underappreciated Greek wines that are a natural match for the menu. Crisp white moscofilero and inky black xinomavro are native grapes worth learning how to pronounce. Wineries such as Gai'a, Mercouri, and Skouras should be more widely poured.
Of course, what would a Greek restaurant be, whether modern or retro, without a decent baklava? Opa's is decent, if a little strong on cinnamon. But it's the other sweets I loved best, such as the house-churned ice creams filled with fig and Merenda, the Greek version of Nutella. Or the curious chocolate and biscuit pastry dusted with powdered sugar called Kormo. Or the honey-soaked loukoumades fritters. I even loved the Greek yogurt parfait layered with honey, nuts, and rippling ripe spoonfuls of sweet blueberry preserves.
With something so wholesomely tasty for dessert to polish off Opa's fun new take on Greek flavors, I could feel the omens turning: fair fortune was smiling once again on me.