GREEK COMFORT in West Portal
Article & Photos by Virginia Miller
OREXI, West Portal (243 W. Portal Ave. at 14th Ave., 415-664-6739)
West Portal has long warmed my heart. Maybe it’s the removed setting, tucked away over the hill from Twin Peaks where the MUNI K and T lines end. Or it’s a sense of stepping back in time to a 1970’s San Francisco, a sleepy area unfazed by trends and hipsterization. It’s a family neighborhood, residential and small town in feel, and like any corner of our city, has its food gems, like old school blue cheese buffalo burgers at charmingly dated Bulls Head, or vividly fresh sandwiches and salads at the original location of Market and Rye.
In a couple short months, West Portal residents have been flocking to Orexi, bustling even on weeknights. It’s Greek… sadly a rarity in the Bay Area despite a plethora of Mediterranean eateries. Kokkari has long been the Greek queen of San Francisco (along with its sister restaurant, Evvia, in Palo Alto) – and it has no equal. Kokkari is on the upscale end, or the likes of Ayola on the cheaper side. I find myself longing for restaurants like Taverna Kyclades in Astoria, Queens, a mid-range, family-style seafood Greek restaurant typical of New York’s famed Greek neighborhood, convivial with Greek families, rounds of crisp, Greek white wines and platters of octopus and grilled fish. Orexi is a step in the right direction – a comfortable, neighborhood Greek restaurant using quality ingredients.
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The understated dining room is chic rather than rustic, warm with a honeycomb-like wall hanging and mirrors reflecting the room’s warm glow. As for the food, grilled octopus ($11 – there’s also an octopus salad for $12.50), typically a favorite of mine, is a bit rubbery over arugula, while gigantes ($7) baked white beans, suffer from blandness but for a dousing of appropriately sweet-savory tomato sauce and crumbled feta on top.
My appetite (the meaning of the Greek word “orexi”) is satiated in unexpected places. House pita bread arrives humbly from the oven, belying its addictive nature, warm and gratifying dipped in small scoops of house dips ($6 each), my favorite being a salty taramosalata, a creamy, fish roe spread laden with olive oil and lemon. The eggplant dip, melitzanosalata, is a balanced expression of the vegetable’s smoky notes, while I wish tyrokafteri, a spicy feta spread dotted with jalapeno, was actually spicy.
Zucchini fritters ($7) with tzatziki (a tangy cucumber yoghurt dip) are a solid starter, while lamb riblets ($9) or lamb carpaccio ($10.75) step it up in tenderness and meaty (not gamey) flavor. In terms of entrees, I’m smitten with homey moussaka ($17). Layers of ground lamb and beef meld with allspice and stewed eggplant under creamy bechamel sauce, reminiscent of the melting-soft, homemade lasagna of my childhood. Simple and also heartwarming, their “signature” rotisserie chicken ($17) is a generous half-bird (free range, thank you very much), over greens and unremarkable potatoes, marinated in lemon, oil and spices, tender inside, with slightly crispy, oregano-laced skin.
In the mix with zippy Greek whites and California wines, the wine list holds a rare treat (and I always head straight for the unusual): retsina. Retsina ($6 a glass at Orexi) is a thousands year old Greek tradition of white or rosé wine aromatized with pine resin (used to seal ancient wine vessels from excess oxygen). As you might imagine, pine resin gives the wine a piney, forest flavor, which some describe as turpentine or sap – “Not for everyone,” our waiter clarifies. Its herbal green notes work beautifully with the roasted chicken.
Orexi’s amiable welcome and candelit glow is comfortably gratifying, like slipping on a pair of slippers by the fire. Thankfully not about “the scene” or the next hot trend, the restaurant is about well-executed comfort food in a neglected category with effortless service paramount.