Greece Lightning

Estia's grilled octopus is like no other in town.

By Lauren McCutcheon
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 21, 2005

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Ocean liner: Chef Gus Pashalis arranges a langoustines atop a giant Atlantic salmon.

Estia
1407 Locust St. 215.735.7700. www.estiarestaurant.com
Cuisine: Greek.
Prices: $19.95-$44.95.
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11am-3pm and 5-10pm; Fri., 11am-3pm and 5-11pm; Sat., 1-3pm and 5-11pm; Sun., 5-10pm.
Smoking: No.
Atmosphere: Vast, mature.
Service: Vested, youthful.
Food: Greece's greatest hits, remastered.

Estia's grilled octopus appetizer doesn't look so special. It looks like yet another bunch of chopped-up white and purple tentacles, sliced red onion, capers and bits of yellow bell pepper soaking in humdrum vinaigrette.

You've seen this dish-or one like it-before. Whatever. You're not impressed. Yawn.

But then you take a bite and realize this isn't the eight-limbed devilfish of appetizers past. This octopus is rich and tangy, sweet and citric. This octopus is tender-incredibly so. This octopus is pricey ($17.95), but big enough for four to share.

This octopus is delicious. But is it enough to get you through its restaurant's double doors?

Estia-Greek for "hearth," which sounds great this time of year, even if there isn't a fireplace in sight-opened a month and a half ago. It succeeded Toto, which succeeded DiLullo's. Not that anyone reading this went to either.

The layout: To the front is an open, but not prominent, kitchen. To the right is a bar and small lounge. To the left is the dining room, which includes arched stone ceilings, exposed wooden beams and four-tops.

Throughout are various architectural and decorative elements meant to evoke the Greek islands, which, apparently, are full of urns, potted palms, nonfunctional wells displaying plates of sparkly faux fruit, and servers wearing lion tamers' vests.

Oh well. So it's a few inches from elegant. So the service is a tad green, and probably shouldn't argue at the end of the bar.

Still, it has a charm about it, and it's certainly become popular with theatergoers and business diners, most of whom sit at tables overlooking the sidewalk, exhibited in a manner similar to the name-tagged whole fish occupying a marketlike display at the other end of the room.

There are interesting new things to try here. There are things you've had before, but prepared differently. The focus is on simply seasoned grilled seafood, which includes a few kinds of Mediterranean snapper, langoustines, Atlantic salmon, sea bass and pompano. Most are served whole. All are sold by weight. None is inexpensive.

Among them is lethrini, which the menu refers to as the "Greek Pride." As promised, it's mild and lean, slightly flaky, fresh, not fishy, and generally tasty. It comes with a lemon wedge. It tastes classic.

The menu concedes to modern palates with sushi-grade tuna, served rare, and just like always, coated in sesame seeds. It's fine. Its accompanying Swiss chard, leeks and spinach are tasty in a good-for-you way. The scoop of scordalia, a garlicky dip made of bread and almonds, is tasty in a this-is-good-but-what-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-it way. The cubes of gold and red beets are tasty in any way.

I'd say, if you're coming in, and you wanna try some interesting Greek wines-which are overpriced by the glass, better by the bottle (skip the Alfa beer, which is a boring imported lager and costs $7)-then just order a bunch of apps and sides.

Maybe have a horiatiki salad: a bowlful of tomato wedges, cucumber slices, red onion, green peppers, Kalamata olives and a few thin triangles of feta.

Take or leave the slab of pan-fried kefalograveira, a sharp and salty hard cheese that's a little tough to break into, but resides in a yummy Cretan olive oil infused with lemon juice and licorice-y ouzo.

Try the fresh sardines or the calamari. Both come whole and four to an order. The calamari are grilled and stuffed with a savory, herbaceous, ricotta-like blend of feta, kefalograveira and Manouri (like creamy chevre). Their tentacles are grilled to a yummy crispness, but their bodies are leathery.

Definitely order the briam, a simple stewlike casserole dish of tomato-sauced slices of eggplant, zucchini, potato and onion.

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