Seafood plays starring role among Greek dishes

Restaurant: Opa!, in Fells Point for five years now, offers tasty fare with a Mediterranean flavor and reasonable prices.

Sunday Gourmet

May 13, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Whenever people ask me about trendy Greek seafood restaurants in Fells Point, I always remind them not to forget Opa!, the eldest of a group that includes the Black Olive, Kali's Court and Karabelas.

Opa! was formerly the Taverna Athena in Harborplace. When it moved to Aliceanna Street five years ago and got its new name, it was essentially the same restaurant. The concept -- traditional Greek food served in a pretty setting -- had worked well in the Inner Harbor.

Nowadays, given the success of the places that followed it, Opa! has become more of a seafood restaurant, offering (depending on what's in the market that day) wild and farmed rockfish, red snapper, bronzini, sole, salmon, shrimp, octopus, squid and flounder.

With its whitewashed walls hung with paintings of Greece, strings of white fairy lights, plants and white tablecloths accented with blue napkins, Opa!'s dining rooms are fresh-looking and agreeable -- if a bit dark at night. As part of the decor, glisteningly fresh fish are displayed on ice in front of the open kitchen.

If you order a whole fish, a specialty of the house, it will be grilled with olive oil, lemon juice, oregano and a touch of garlic, then handsomely garnished with slices of lemon and a confetti of chopped red pepper and parsley. Those faint of heart can have their fish grilled whole and then filleted before it gets to the table. The night we were there, the choice of whole fish was farmed rockfish or red snapper. Our snapper was overcooked, but the delicate flesh was still sweet and mild.

Prices are reasonable, with an effort made to keep everything under $20. A great bargain is the "Taverna Sunset Dinner": a choice of eight entrees like roast leg of lamb with a small Greek salad and a dessert for $9.95. (Wines to go with them are priced at $13.95 a bottle.) You can get the prix fixe from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

But then you would miss the pikilia appetizer, a combination of three Greek cheeses or spreads, arranged on radicchio leaves and garnished with fat Greek olives, lemon wedges and parsley. Taramosalata is a must -- a creamy, lemony spread that you would never guess is based on fish roe. Tzatziki, cucumbers and yogurt, was a tangy, refreshing contrast. I wasn't going to get any takers for the third spread offered, pureed garlic with olive oil and lemon, so we had instead firm, sharp-tasting chunks of kefalograviera cheese. All this goes well with Opa!'s freshly made bread, served with olive oil mixed with vinegar and herbs.

You could also start with thin, flat slices and tentacles of squid grilled on small skewers so they have a deliciously smoky flavor, or the traditional grape leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice and bathed in an egg-lemon sauce.

As for main courses, lamb here is prepared in more ways than usual: roasted, fricasseed, grilled or wrapped in phyllo with vegetables, feta cheese and hard-boiled egg, then baked. But you can't go wrong with Opa!'s baby lamb chops, deliciously pink at the center with lots of smoky flavor.

There are various kebabs, such as chicken skewered with the traditional kebab vegetables and squash. (The chicken was grilled a bit too long.) If you feel like seafood but not whole fish, try the shrimp giouvetsaki, an appealing dish the Taverna Athena first introduced to Baltimore. It's still presented with a little showmanship: First the plate holding a timbale of rice is placed before the customer, then the waiter spoons the plump shrimp in their creamy fresh tomato sauce sparked with feta cheese around it. Entrees no longer come with the traditional stewed green beans and tomatoes -- we got crisp-edged wedges of roast potato and fresh spinach.

Dinner ends with a flourish. Desserts are baked by Greek Village, the same bakery that bakes the restaurant's bread. They are fresh and wonderfully sticky-sweet except for a chocolate mousse cake, which is pedestrian in comparison. Stick to the baklava or custard-filled galaktoboureko. If those aren't wicked enough for you, go for the chocolate-drizzled version of the baklava.

On the weeknight we were there, Opa! was fairly empty; only one other table was filled when we arrived. At first it wasn't a problem that the host was also the only waiter. But once a couple of other parties came in, the service slowed down. It wasn't bad, just not quite as attentive. Opa! seems to be Fells Point's forgotten Greek restaurant, so it makes sense that there's less help there during the week.


Food: ***

Service:** 1/2

Atmosphere: ***

Where: 1911 Aliceanna St.

Hours: Dinner only Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $3.75-$9.95; main courses, $7.95-$19.95

Call: 410-522-4466

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor:*

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