Goat's milk feta from mountainous Epirus off the Ionian sea. Spanakopita made with fresh spinach, that marvelous feta, and filo dough laboriously rolled out by hand. Greek snapper drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Thick Greek yogurt scribbled with fragrant honey.
In Southern California, the French are represented by bistros and haute cuisine, the Italians by trattorie and elegant ristoranti, but Greek cuisine here — and it's not easy to find — means boisterous tavernas. Places such as Papa Cristo's or Sofi in Los Angeles or Taverna Tony in Malibu are fun and good, but somehow we've never really had a serious Greek restaurant. Until now.
Enter Petros, a new restaurant and lounge in Manhattan Beach. Set in a slick new shopping center in the heart of the South Bay beach town, Petros goes against every cliché of Greek restaurants. No posters of Mykonos or folk dancers in costume. No cheesy plaster statues or Greek flags. The interior is all white, the walls unadorned, sleek and sophisticated. The chef has done time in some of L.A.'s best kitchens and has both technique and soul. And the crowd is the same one you'd find at any upscale California restaurant on this part of the coast — mostly young, affluent and intent on partying the night away.
The food is just as much a departure. The breadth of Petros' menu and prices that are higher than at most L.A. Greek spots reflect the fact that chef Yianni Koufodontis, who was sous-chef at both Spago and Maple Drive, not only has some serious technique, but has also made the effort to seek out top-notch ingredients.
Meze, the little dishes served to share at the beginning of the meal, are the glory of the Greek table. And at Petros they're so enticing and presented with such conviction that a good many Angelenos are sure to fall under their spell.
You'll want to start with an order of the combo dips, which come with warm triangles of pita bread. I've started ordering two plates for the table now, so that everyone can dive in with abandon, scooping up the smoky eggplant purée or tzatziki, that addictive blend of thick Greek yogurt and cucumber with garlic and lemon. Each spread is distinctive and delicious. If you fall for the earthy puréed fava beans, next time you can order a plate all to yourself. Or maybe it'll be the olivada, minced Greek olives with good olive oil and a little sun-dried tomato, next time you can order a plate all to yourself.
Often skorthalia, (sometimes spelled skordalia) a sort of aioli traditionally made in a mortar and pestle and thickened with potato, comes to the table with the bread; it always disappears in a heartbeat. This stuff is potent with garlic and absolutely terrific. One dish it always comes with is the roasted heirloom baby beets and beet greens.
I'm just taking my first bite of horta — wilted dandelion greens dressed in lemon and olive oil — when I look up to see the elderly Greek widow I had met in the bar across the room at a table with her family. She told me she was born in Greece 86 years ago, but grew up and raised her family in a small lumber town north of Eureka. It's well past 10, but there she is, hoisting a glass of ouzo and yelling out "Opa!" ("All right!") I can only hope I'll be doing the same at her age.
Soon we're involved with saganaki, kefalotiri cheese browned in a pan until it's molten in the center, then dressed with a squirt of lemon and some parsley. The cheese is excellent, a very credible version. But it pales next to two versions made with feta. Nikos saganaki is crusted with sesame seeds and golden raisins; the sweet against the salty creaminess of the feta is brilliant. And I love the combination of firm pink shrimp with tomatoes and crumbled feta in the shrimp saganaki.
The same beautiful shrimp appear in a salad with firm, ripe avocado and a lemon vinaigrette showered with fragrant herbs: basil, mint, dill, and parsley. It's swimming in juices that cry out to be mopped up with your bread. What a lovely summery dish.
The quality of the ingredients shows strongly in the Greek salad. This is one dish that everybody has probably tasted at one time or another. Petros, though, takes it to a whole new level. Owner Petros Benekos insists on the feta he considers the mother of all feta, that from Epirus, and it is something very special. Sometimes it's made from goat milk, other times sheep's milk — either way, it has a beguiling, creamy density of flavor punctuated with a lick of salt. He refuses to serve the common kalamata olive. Instead, he uses Volos olives, renowned for their deep flavor. The house Greek salad adds slices of perfectly ripe avocado to the traditional tomatoes and cucumbers, while the Petros Greek salad includes green peppers instead of avocado. No lettuce. No filler. Just the intense flavors of each of the ingredients lavished with extra virgin Greek olive oil and a sprinkling of the oregano that scents the Greek hillsides.
When Benekos makes the rounds of the tables, we ask if he knows somewhere we could buy feta of this quality. He says he's thinking about opening a store next door that would sell Greek wines, olive oil, feta and other cheeses, just the very best Greek ingredients.
In terms of wine, Greece is still stuck with the retsina image in many people's minds, and the idea of drinking Greek wine anywhere but in Greece may seem unbelievable. But Greek viticulture, which of course goes back to ancient times, has made great strides in recent years; some of the best producers' wines are now imported into this country. Benekos has put together a small, but select Greek wine list. Some are available by the glass if you want to taste before committing to a bottle.
Among the reds, try the velvety Skouras St. George, which is 100% Agiorgitiko, an indigenous grape. He's also got Boutari Grand Reserve Naoussa, which is 100% Xinomavro; its bright acidity makes it a good match with lamb. Other wines blend Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot with indigenous grapes. The glassware is appropriate and servers are well-versed — you could even say jazzed — about the wines. The short California list could have more interesting selections that would better complement the food.
The well-heeled urban beach crowd at Petros could as easily be hanging at a California-Mediterranean or an upscale Mexican restaurant. But now that Benekos and company have given Greek cuisine some sex appeal, they're enjoying a taste of the exotic. Someone at the next table swears he tasted something like the spaghetti with lobster and feta in Mykonos. Or was it Santorini?
Not everything is thrilling, but most dishes are very good. What stands out at Petros is the fish, specifically the two Greek fish. One is a Greek snapper, simply grilled and presented with a thread of olive oil and lemon and some oregano. The flesh is sweet and succulent. The other is lavrake, or Greek sea bass sautéed with quartered braised artichokes, carrots and potatoes in a silky white wine emulsion.
Two specials served on a recent night are outstanding. The first is spanakopita, spinach pie made from Benekos' mother's recipe and that beautiful Epirus feta. The filo is handmade too, which is a lot of work, so the kitchen can only make it occasionally. But what a pie, with the fine texture of the filo playing against the earthy spinach and briny feta.
The other dynamite special was a charred octopus salad. The octopus was sweet and butter-tender, served up with squirts of lemon and olive oil, and fragrant herbs.
It's not always perfect. The pasta with lamb arrives cold one night, the fat strands of pasta overcooked. And you could find better versions of braised lamb shank elsewhere.
Save plenty of room for dessert. I'm thinking thick Greek yogurt drizzled with honey and scattered with walnuts. It's more sumptuous than you could imagine. But also bougatsa, which is filo pastry wrapped around a sturdy semolina custard scented with vanilla bean. I remember scarfing it down warm, fresh out of a bakery in Greece. Here, it's lovely served with cinnamon ice cream. The baklava is unusual too, made with three kinds of nuts and soaked in a citrus syrup that cuts some of the sweetness.
Petros has inspired me to rummage through my Greek cookbooks, looking up recipes for these and other dishes. If the food at Petros is anything to go by, I can see a trend for Greek food coming on. It's long overdue.
Location: Metlox Center, 451 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-4100; petrosrestaurant.com
Ambience: Lively contemporary Greek restaurant with all-white décor and windows looking onto a large courtyard with trees strung with lanterns. It's not Mykonos, but Manhattan Beach.
Service: Friendly and accommodating; servers are also well informed about the dishes and the cuisine.
Price: Dinner appetizers and meze, $5 to $24; entrées, $18 to $34; desserts, $8; lunch appetizers, $5 to $24; entrées, $12 to $18; desserts, $8.
Best dishes: Greek salad, horta, spanakopita, shrimp salad, saganaki, combo dips, lobster spaghetti with tomato and feta, grilled Greek snapper, sautéed Greek sea bass, moussaka, bougatsa, Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts.
Wine list: Greek wines by the glass or the bottle, including a couple of dessert choices, plus some standard California wines. Corkage, $15.
Best table: One in the corner along the back wall.
Details: Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Parking in public lot.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.