We may be lacking in originality, but Mike and I have decided to try as many as we can of restaurants featured in the SF Chronicle's list of the best 100 restaurants. We started by going to Café Rouge in Berkeley, and followed by trying Kokkari on a Friday night in July 2001. All in all, we had a pleasant experience, but we felt that the food did not justify the high prices - though the ambiance might.
Kokkari's owners spent millions of dollars and hired award-winning architects to design the restaurant, and it shows. We ate at the "saloni," the front room - a large room with high ceilings and an enormous fireplace. It was a little bit crowded - I had to go around several tables to get to my side of the table - but the dim lights, noisy people standing by the bar and large fire behind us created a very convivial atmosphere. It had a feeling, I thought, of a ski lodge: warm and relaxed. Unfortunately, we were seated at a table for 2 that was a mere 2 or 3 inches away from another one. This made it impossible to have private conversations and made the place much less romantic than it could otherwise be. Other two-person tables were situated next to the busy entrance, but the 2-person tables by the window seem like they should be good. You may want to request one of them when you make your reservation. Larger tables don't seem to suffer as much from lack of privacy.
Service at Kokkari also deserves high marks. Our waiter was very nice and attentive, and was quick in bringing some club soda when he noticed I had spilled some sauce on my scarf (the stain came out :). We never lacked for water - though he could have offered a new basket of bread before our main entrees arrived.
If I have a complaint about Kokkari, it has to be the food. It was good but not great - and given that it describes itself as the "best Greek restaurant in San Francisco," I expected more. Mike and I shared the soutzoukakia (grilled meatballs with peppers, onions & tomato) as an appetizer ($8.50). The meatballs were fine, but I thought they needed more flavor. The sweet peppers were delicious, however, but they overwhelmed the meatballs when eaten together.
As my main dish I ordered the ortikia (roasted quail over orzo wild rice pilafi, toasted walnuts with poached figs & quail jus) ($24). Mike had the Kokinisto me Manestra (aromatic braised lamb shank over orzo, served with Myzithra cheese) ($23). My quail came stuffed with a green vegetable, spinach I presumed, a fact which was not advertised in the description. I don't eat vegetables, so I had to somewhat laboriously separate it from the meat. That didn't leave much meat left over, and what was wasn't that great. It was savory and a tad too salty, but again seemed to be missing a spice or two that would have made it more satisfying. The orso pilaf, however, was rather good. Mike's lamb suffered from a similar problem. It smelled wonderfully, reminding me of my favorite lamb tagine (I daresay there must have been some honey in the dish). The taste, however, left something to be desired. There wasn't anything obviously wrong with it, it just wasn't as fully flavored as I would have wished. I also thought it was too fatty, and with the dim lights it wasn't too easy to separate the meat from the fat, but it was very tender. I think that the chef could have done better.
The wine list seemed pretty nice but as I was having quail, and I felt a red wine might not go too well with it, I decided to skip the wine. Mike had a glass of the Aghiorghitiko, which seems to be a Cabernet Sauvignon blend, and he liked it - though he didn't think it was particularly noteworthy.
I must also say that while our experience with Greek food is very limited (when I traveled in Greece, many years ago, I was too poor to actually afford "real" food, so I survived on souvlaky pitas and Coca Cola), we did not feel the food was "Greek" enough. The flavors had a hint of Middle Eastern spices, but beyond that they weren't very different from those served at most Mediterranean/Californian restaurants around. Of course, we did not order traditional Greek dishes such as moussaka, so we can't really complain about this.
We were more pleased with our desserts (all $8). I had (surprise, surprise) the fistiki brulée (pistachio crème brulée with seasonal fresh fruit & raspberry sauce). It was beautifully presented, the fresh berries and sauce served as a decoration, and it came on a "cookie" made from shredded dough (it's known as kunafa in the Arab World and I think as kadaife in Greece). The pistachio flavor was also very subtle, but gave the creme brulee an exotic hint. What I particularly liked was the contrast of textures between the smooth cake and the somewhat gritty cookie, it worked very well. Mike had the sokolatina, a trio of chocolate baklava, attiki honey chocolate mousse & chocolate ice cream. I thought the ice cream was OK but not great (it's hard to top Ben & Jerry's), the baklava interesting and the chocolate mouse very good. It was all very chocolatey and should satisfy most chocolate lovers.
We spent about $100 for the whole dinner, which seems about standard for a dinner out at a nice restaurant nowadays.
200 Jackson Street (at Front)