(To be published by South Bay Accent magazine.)
If only the city fathers would allow tables to be set up all the way down Palo Alto’s Emerson Street, newcomer Taverna would easily fill them all. Visiting this boisterous munchkin of a restaurant downtown is like taking a quick trip to the Greek islands due to the blue-and-white decor, wooden chairs and festive atmosphere, which has turned Taverna into the “it” dining spot of the moment. Its piddling size means that the limited seating inside and at outdoor tables that hug the white walls of its corner location are hard to nab without planning ahead.
The modern, fresh take on Greek food is the major factor filling up Taverna nightly. This isn’t the place for standard dishes like moussaka, pastitsio or avgolemono, but the petite menu of “bites,” small plates and entrees is still full of inducements. Despite Taverna’s casual vibe, the kitchen also sends out extras like an amuse bouche, post-dinner mignardise and a little bowl of addictive stragalia, toasted chickpeas here mated with golden raisins.
Among the “bites,” one of the stars is luscious little fritters that can be peas, corn or something else depending on the season that come with herbed feta , skordalia (garlic and potato spread) and a dusting of Aleppo pepper. Don’t miss the fries with feta herb aioli and oregano or a house creation in which a moist barley-musk biscuit is crowned with sea urchin and caviar. Meanwhile, there are many bites in the sizeable, must-order meze platters, one featuring cheeses and house-made charcuterie and the other a seafood extravaganza paired with mayo-free Greek potato salad and marinated anchovies.
Most popular among small plates is the smoky, just-chewy-enough octopus that’s grilled and comes with smears of mashed split peas and capers. Yum! Raw kampachi is light and subtle, seasoned with shaved fennel and citrus with radish slices for textural interest. For flashy, delicious fun, order the saganaki plate, in which servers flame Greek cheese in a pan tableside and the succulent result is flavored with caramelized onions and sunflower seeds, then eaten with hunks of bread.
Also a big hit with diners is pork souvlaki in which chunks of lean pork are skewered along with fatty bacon, a delicious pairing for meat eaters. The souvlaki gets a hefty squeeze of lemon and dusting of mustard seeds before serving. An expertly tossed and dressed salad is lavish and wonderful with its sprinkling of fresh herbs and toasted pistachios, with a semi-hidden surprise: a thick puddle of flavorsome cheese spread.
That Greek mainstay, lamb chops, sometimes show up as an entree or a small plate. The juicy, seared chops are from sustainably raised California lamb and come with a revolving list of veggie that might be okra, eggplant or something else. Guests’ only quibble is the sky-high price for just a couple of diminutive chops if ordered as an entree. On the seafood end, pink California trout is tasty but a bit overcooked and paired with mussel pilaf and vegetables of the season. An upscale cheeseburger here is formed from high-end beef topped with kasseri and fries on the side while the small game hen is juicy and enjoyable.
The pleasing, well-executed menu and attentive service are no surprise given the backgrounds of the principle players, owners Thanasis Pashalidis and Hakan Bala, who keep the floor running nicely, and chef William Roberts. The trio honed their skills at the region’s top Greek restaurants — Evvia, Dio Deka and Kokkari — while also working at respected Bay Area dining spots like Village Pub, Michael Mina and Mayfield Bakery and Cafe.
The only frustration for some Taverna guests is the deafening noise level, in which sign language is required to easily communicate with tablemates. So just take another bite of grilled octopus, toast your friends with a glass of aromatic Assyrtiko and drink up the Greek island atmosphere silently with a smile.
Taverna, 800 Emerson St., Palo Alto; (650) 304-3840. http://www.tavernarestaurant.squarespace.com
HOURS: 5-10, Monday -Saturday. Reservations strongly recommended.
PRICES: Bites & small plates: $3-19; entrees: $19-54; desserts: $10-12.