Evvia: Palo Alto’s Greek infusion

Feb. 7, 2014, 9:25 p.m.

“I’ll tell you a secret, RJ.”

Panos Gogonas, powerful hand on my shoulder, steers my dining companion and me across the crowded dining salon. Navigating past crowded tables, the charismatic general manager of Evvia Estiatorio shows us to our table in a quiet alcove.

“The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia he explains. “That means making friends of strangers, and as our guest tonight, you are our friend.”

It is just this Greek warmth that consistently draws the glitterati of Palo Alto to the restaurant — Laurene Jobs MBA ’91 is seated two tables away — and makes it one of the finest establishments in the neighborhood.

The food is a culinary odyssey through Greece, with specialties from across the country. The gigantes ($8.50), a specialty of the Kozani region, takes two full days to prepare, a process that includes soaking the giant white beans, degassing them and then baking them in a chunky tomato sauce. The result is a meltingly tender layer of legumes that carries the crispness of dill-infused feta with admirable grace.

The octapodaki tou yiorgou ($13.75) requires octopus to be braised in a wine and vinegar stock for precisely 80 minutes, before resting for up to a day; each order is then char-grilled over a mesquite flame in a lemon-oregano olive oil dressing. The octopus’ smoky flavor, intensified in crispy bits of carcinogenic ambrosia, pairs perfectly with the rich 2010 Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini ($11 per glass), whose fine sea salt finish transports you to the rocky Aegean coastline.

Thanking Zeus my dining companion is pescetarian, I proceed to dive headfirst into the arnisia plevrakia ($11.75) — lamb back ribs, braised in stock to tenderize all connective tissues then grilled to perfection, that take on an immaculate succulence that nigh approaches the Platonic ideal of tastiness.

Nothing quite prepares me, however, for the arnisia paidakia ($38.00), which I overhear the next table ordering (“No, Elizabeth, it’s like nothing you’ve ever tried”). Once the two hulking slabs of grilled Australian lamb are set down upon my plate, I embark upon the Herculean task of prying every strand of meat off the bone. Each bite is an explosion of savory goodness, and the earthy chocolate flavors in my Moraitis Paros Reserve 2008 ($11 per glass) bring out the lamb’s subtle sweetness.

My dining companion’s psari psito (market price as quoted), a whole grilled Cyprus seabass sprinkled with lemon juice, is an exercise in textural contrasts: crisp skin crackles into creamy, flaky flesh, pregnant with juices. All of this is washed down, of course, with a glass of Skouras Zoë Rosé 2008 ($11 per glass), with its ripe cherry and rose notes.

Because I categorically never resist the siren call of glucose, we try a wide range of desserts, including the yiaourti me xera frouta ($7.25), a generous mound of dense Greek yogurt drenched in a dried fruit compote and toasted walnuts. Haunted by PTSD flashbacks of my disastrous low-carb diet three years ago, I gingerly tuck into the yogurt, only to discover that there is nothing spartan about this dish. We promptly unhinge our jaws and work our way through the dish.

Perhaps most outstanding, however, are the melamakarona ($8.00), traditional Greek cookies that are at once crispy and melt-in-your-mouth. The golden honey in which they are soaked right after baking provides a suitably satisfying Midas touch and forms the perfect foil to the bittersweet Greek coffee ($5.00), which packs a powerful punch even in a cup the size of a ping pong ball.

We wrap up our Bacchanalian feast with a snifter of Metaxa Five Star ($9), a sweet Greek brandy bursting with flowery, raisiny flavors and just a whisper of oak. Less of a dessert and more of a digestif is the Tsilili tsipouro ($12), a Greek Grappa whose smooth nutty nose gives way to a surprisingly long licorice finish — just what we needed after our marathon meal.

We’d eat here every day if we could, but the experience is so breathtaking that — lest you end up dissatisfied with every other restaurant on the block — you’d probably be best off saving this for your finer meals. Evvia truly is eudaimonia in an old friend’s house.

Contact Renjie Wong at renjie ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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