Friday, December 16, 2011

It's Greek, but not as you knew it

serious chops!

the moussaka

The Great Fry Mountain!

Greek food's on the foodie map. Hot new cookbooks, restaurants that move away from soggy gyro sandwiches into things you might really find in Greece. Variety, freshly prepared ingredients: fish, lamb, beef, chicken. Grilled, baked, braised. Time to find out what all the fuss is about.

The Los Angeles Times wandered into Orange County and found Kentro Greek Kitchen. I followed a few weeks later.

This restaurant is a bright, modern space painted black and white instead of the typical blue and white. You order at the counter, take a number and they bring your food. Like the space, the menu is no-nonsense. Simply grilled meats, copious sandwiches. Salads, including beet.  Appetizers, even charbroiled octopus. Greek wine, Greek beer, Greek coffee (more on that later).

Yes, they have pita bread sandwiches, in new guise. Gyro sandwiches are gone, replaced with charbroiled pork, roasted and pulled chicken, braised lamb. I didn't eat one, though.

I didn't eat the flatbread, either, kind of like Greek mini-pizzas with things like arugula, figs, honey (all on one pizza).

I did taste the faques soup - lentils, tomatoes, celery and carrots punctuate a light herbal tomato-based broth. The lentils support the overall flavor; they're not the central focus here, so you get a progression of flavors as each vegetable gives a nod as it passes.

The loukaniko sausage - available as an appetizer or on a flatbread - comes sliced on a platter, grill smoke mixing with the meat and herbs for a savory bite just waiting for a dip into some fresh tzatziki sauce. The mezzedaki (appetizer) plate adds kefalotiri cheese and a couple of lamb chops. And that wonderful, tangy dill-infused creamy tzatziki sauce.

I suppose they'd lose their Greek cred if they skipped the moussaka. You can lose the gyros, but axe this dish and Helen of Troy will roll in her grave. This version is lighter, airier than most. Its flavors mingle, yet remain distinct without collapsing into a dense mass in the oven. It builds on thinly sliced potatoes on the bottom, adds eggplant and tomato sauce, then a thin layer of béchamel over the top. You can pick and choose between layers. You can have one bite dominated by eggplant and tomato; the next thinly sliced potatoes lightly graced with the béchamel. Or, you can try to smash three inches of moussaka layers into one all-encompasing mouthful and hope for the best.

I didn't go there. It wasn't my moussaka, and a containment failure would be embarrassing, to say the least.

My choice was lamb chops. They arrived in a generous pile, nestled next to a virtual mountain of fries, accented with a dollop of that luscious tzatziki. Ah, that was a marriage made in heaven: bistro-style fries flavored with kefalotiri cheese, dipped in olive oil infused yogurt tzatziki with its hints of dill and cucumber. Then a bite of the lamb, rubbed briefly in that sauce so its rich herbal flavor could counterpart the acidity of the sauce. Then a sip of Amethystos red wine.

They were out of galaktobouriko. Wait. No, we were in luck, a fresh batch was just coming out of the oven. Dessert would make an appearance after all. After allowing fifteen minutes for the dessert to cool, it arrived at our table. Flaky phyllo over yellowish custard, with not-so-flaky phyllo on the bottom that worked hard to prevent cutting the dessert. Despite the bottom phyllo layer, the dessert was a success due to the great job they did on the custard. Again, light and well-seasoned.

The final dot at the end of the meal was the coffee, Greek style. Elleniko, to be exact. Kind of redundant, like Greek Greek coffee. Interesting. Like espresso with sugar, but made differently. Somehow the grounds, a bit of sugar and water are combined in some brewing device, heated in a manner involving a bubble, then served in a small cup, like espresso. Except for the flavor, and the quarter inch of coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup. Brewing coffee this way really changes the flavor profile, not at all like adding sugar to already-brewed American coffee. Kind of a surprise on the first sip, then a bit of doubt: "do I like this". Another sip. Well... Another sip. Yeah, I think I could get used to this stuff.

There are still a lot of things waiting for me on the menu, calling my name in seductive Helen-like voices. Flat breads, octopus, dolmades, spanakopita, grilled fish with dandelion greens...

It's really too bad stomachs don't hold more food.

Kentro lives in a kind of "restaurant mall". Parking is strange - the closer you park to the restaurant, the less time you can stay in the space. Not a problem if you don't mind walking across a parking lot as a price you pay to enjoy a more leisurely meal. They're at 100 South Harbor Boulevard  in Fullerton. If you're coming from the 91 freeway up Harbor, turn before your GPS tells you that you've arrived. If you go straight, you'll miss the parking lot and have to circle around. The Amtrak station is across the lot from the restaurant, so you could even arrive in style by train.

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