The spread pikilia arrives on a wooden board, and contains all sorts of wonderful surprises. The impression from the menu is that you’ve seen this collection of dips a thousand times before, and you brace yourself for the kind of mild disappointment that most hummus, tzatziki and feta-based options inspire. You accept this is a matter of course, as a sort of Greek-spread stasis.
But not at Opa.
No, what you get at Opa is a trio of dips that rise above the vaguely depressing status quo: The hummus burnishes a darker shade of tan from the hefty addition of smoked paprika; the tzatzaki is mouth-watering, healthy-tasting; the tirokafteri soft and sensual, the feta base exploding with the bright heat and vivid color of red Italian frying peppers.
This is as successful and as understated an opening salvo as any Greek restaurant’s in the city right now.
As for the rest of the menu, it finds its sweet spot in much the same realm: with strong execution of bold-flavored dishes that don’t have too much stuff packed in.
Saganaki, while not a blockbuster, is every bit as pleasant as it’s supposed to be, and not half as crapped up as it too often is. Rather, it’s a deceptively straightforward plating of kaseri cheese, seared and lying flat on the dish, kissed with a hit of Metaxa and accompanied by a humble wedge of lemon. While this isn’t any sort of hyper-intellectual or aesthetically striking dish, it’s not supposed to be: Straightforward is a good thing when the components are this well-considered and confidently employed.
Vegetable souvlaki, however, is less of a hit, and not for any other reason than it isn’t anything terribly remarkable—just a simple skewer of tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, nicely charred, sure, but otherwise fairly run-of-the-mill.
On the other end of the skewer, so to speak, is the kokoretsi, the latest entry into the city’s ever-expanding adventure-eating sweepstakes. This is as rustic as it gets—the layers of liver, heart and sweetbreads wrapped in a protective spiral of intestine and roasted. And while the intestines were magnificent, the liver was overcooked to the point of chalkiness. The bites of heart that had been properly trimmed were, as always, a gorgeous argument for this undervalued organ’s meat, but too many bites were marred by tough fat and tissue that made it nearly impossible to chew. It’s being brought in raw from a butcher in Astoria, Queens, so it could have just been a problem with this batch, but it’s a serious one. With a bit more attention to those details, however, the kokoretsi has the potential to become a defining dish for Opa.
Executive Chef Andrew Brown does well with vegetarian dishes too, as amply demonstrated by the spreads. Tourlou, too, a deceptively simple vegetarian dish (save the perfectly prepared three-minute egg on top), is remarkable for the textures of its individual components—the stewed zucchini retaining just enough crunch, the gigande beans hearty and still encased in a snappy shell. Striped bass—sustainably sourced from Virginia right now—is also an unexpectedly subtle charmer, especially if you chase each forkful of tender, wildly moist fish with a bite of fried chickpea souffle sticks. The thin, almost tempura-textured crust leads to a silky center that highlights the sexy side of legumes as well as anything in Philly has for years.
Wine-braised rabbit, moist as Sunday brisket or well-loved short ribs (a miracle for such a hyper-lean protein), finds an unexpected textural counterpart in the pleasantly slippery noodles, broad, dense and made in-house.
From a design standpoint, Opa has managed to highlight both the rusticity and the mysterious sexiness that is so often applied to our popular perceptions of Greece, and the team here has done so in a way that’s consistent with the vibe of so many of their neighboring restaurants.
Like Barbuzzo, Zavino and so many of the other standouts in this part of town, Opa finds its footing somewhere between deeply evocative and down-home chill. Service is excellent: attentive and well-informed, but never pedantic, which is always a risk when a menu is as full as this one with dishes that may be unfamiliar.
I can’t think of a better setting to enjoy a drink—definitely try some of the excellent Greek wines offered; this is a country whose wines are most definitely on the upswing—a plateful of airy, honey-kissed loukoumades (think Greek beignets, only lighter), and watch the Sansom Street foot traffic file by. It’s yet another reason, as if we needed one, to head on over to this part of town and gorge ourselves silly.
1311 Sansom St.
Cuisine type: Greek with soul and flair.
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 5pm-midnight.
Price range: $3-$24.
Atmosphere: Sexy and airy, with an edge of rusticity.
Food: Generally well-executed, flavorful and brave enough to let simple, high-quality ingredients shine.
Service: Informed, friendly and very well-trained.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014