"The secrets of the Greek cuisine," Toula Votsis told me recently, "are simplicity, good olive oil, the freshest ingredients, spices, and love." Votsis, who is the manager of the six-month-old Opa Authentic Greek Koozina on Jefferson Road, knows of whence she speaks: she, and most of the other members of the Votsis family who are involved in Opa, has been in the restaurant business, and in the business of cooking for her own family, since she was a teenager. (Most recently, she and her husband owned the Southview Family Restaurant). Votsis' brother-in-law Konstantinos Votsis opened Opa to offer Rochester something it doesn't see too often — Greek food without the pervasive American-diner influence. Greek food the way that Konstantinos Votsis and his family eat at home.
Spring has taken its good, sweet time coming to us this year, and so as yet another dismal, cold April week spun itself out a few weeks ago, I went looking for comfort food. The first dish that jumped out at me on Opa's menu was a plate of sliced potatoes, fried in olive oil, topped with melted saganaki cheese and sprinkled with herbs and a bit more olive oil ($8). Served hot, the spuds were toothsome outside and fluffy within, kind of like perfect French fries. The salt and pleasantly funky sheep's milk cheese was a nice touch, and a good bridge to the second course of my carb- and fat-rich lunch, makaronia me kima ($13).
Topped with a generous dusting of more of that saganaki, makaronia me kima looks at first glance like a plate of workaday spaghetti with meat sauce. That is, after all, what it is — kind of. According to Toula Votsis, there is no more authentic Greek home cooking than this. It's the dish, she told me, that you make when "no one knows what they want to eat." And, as it was for me, this is always a crowd pleaser. Anyone who has ever eaten in Cincinnati will recognize makaronia me kima as their beloved Cincinnati chili — although they will be curious why someone left the beans and chopped onions out of the mix, and will miss the mono-dimensional chili powder with just a whisper of cinnamon that characterizes that mid-western specialty. At Opa, there's a lot more going on than just cinnamon, which takes a front seat rather than the sidecar. The chef adds to his rich, meaty sauce a powerful blast of garlic, some oregano, and a host of other flavors that I quickly gave up on trying to identify, creating something that would be as good served on a bun as it is over spaghetti — think, Zeus' sloppy joe. I was lucky enough to have some of the vlahikes patates left over from my appetizer to get to test the proposition that this could make a superlative Greek-ish poutine. It really, really could.
A few days later, spring finally arrived, and I started craving all things grilled. A companion and I met up for an epic lunch at Opa. Starting with a bottle of retsina, we ordered fried smelts (heads removed, thankfully; $8), grilled octopus drizzled with olive oil and herbs ($13), butter beans stewed with tomatoes and onions ($7), skewers of grilled beef, pork, and chicken served with lemon-roasted potatoes, pilaf, tzatziki, and Greek salad ($15-$16).
While the smelts were underwhelming, more like glorified fish-sticks than anything else, the octopus was surprisingly good. It was meaty without being rubbery, and nicely grilled, the herb-infused olive oil a nice sop for the meat. The real star of this early round of lunch, though, was the beans. Tender and cooked to the point that they nearly burst out of their skins, the beans luxuriated in a sauce that was a masterful example of how to coax every bit of flavor out of humble ingredients. The tomatoes cooked until they dissolved into a sweet and umami-rich paste, the onions caramelized perfectly, and a judicious amount of chicken stock and garlic were thrown in to round things out. I kept coming back to the remaining sauce throughout the meal, dabbing it on everything that came to hand (it was particularly good on the octopus).
You can do a lot with a lemon and some olive oil, and at Opa these two kitchen staples get an incredibly brisk work-out. All of the souvlaki on Opa's menu are marinated in ladolemono, an olive oil and lemon juice emulsion, before being tossed on the grill. The marinade tenderizes the meat, but the lemon juice also breaks down connective tissues a bit, transforming tough but flavorful cuts of meat into buttery morsels that positively ooze tasty juices despite the plentiful char they exhibit on the outside. Pork and chicken are great choices here, but the beef truly is far superior to its peers. Cooked medium rare yet almost lovingly browned on the surface, the two skewers of steak that I had for lunch were so good I seriously considered ordering a couple more just so I wouldn't have to stop eating. I was absolutely delighted to realize that the drippings from the beef had mixed with the lemon sauce on the roasted potatoes, making a good thing just that much better.
On my final visit to Opa, I returned to comfort food, opting for the Greek equivalent of chicken soup, avgolemono ($5-$6). It seems that every culture that has grandmothers has some form of chicken soup, and here it is served up thickened with rice, the eggs, lemon, and chicken stock whipped into an emulsion that belies the origins of the dish. Avgolemono, which traces its origins back to the 15th century, was originally a sauce served with chicken or fish, the eggs used primarily as a thickener in the age before cooks started thickening their sauces with roux. The version served here at the beginning of the 21st century was spectacular — tangy, substantial, and exactly what you'd want to come home to after a long day at the grind.