They say everyone is expendable. But this humbling bit of folklore is not necessarily true. It certainly does not apply to Thomas Houndalas, proprietor of Le Petit Greek, an engaging new restaurant on Larchmont Boulevard.
Houndalas remembers his customers, learns their names without asking, and dispenses such hospitality and charm that he may not be able to take a vacation. The place wouldn't be the same without him.
This polished style has a professional foundation. Born in Navplion, a Greek town where his father had a restaurant, Houndalas studied hotel management in London for four years and put in five years as assistant maitre d' at the Jonathan Club in Los Angeles before going on his own.
Le Petit Greek has been doing capacity business since it opened in May. The sparkling small room is whitewashed, brightened with a band of mirrors and freshened with touches of green. Instead of folksy ornaments, there are striking black-and-white photographs of Greece, heightened by an occasional dash of red paint. These are by Andy Frasheski, an Oakland photographer and friend of Houndalas.
The food is quite good, some of it memorable. For me, memorable applies to five dishes. One is the superlative salmon Athenian--beautiful moist king salmon in a cream sauce that incorporates pureed Greek olives, fresh tomatoes and basil. I've raved about this, saying it's the best salmon I've tasted. (A burst of enthusiasm prompted that strong statement at first encounter. It was also very good a second time.)
Then there is the Greek pizza, a thin-crusted composition of feta cheese, beef sausage, tomatoes, green pepper and basil--simple, clean tasting and a wonderful appetizer.
Fasolakia-- green beans baked with tomatoes and an assortment of herbs--puts to shame the tasteless, tiresome little vegetables that creep too often onto California plates. Here are beans with soul. You don't get them every night,though, because the restaurant varies its accompaniments.
Sauteed squid with lemon and capers may sound common, and Le Petit Greek adds no extraordinary sauce or special seasoning. The winning point here is that the squid come to the table perfectly cooked, hot and crisp.
Last in the memorable list is a dessert that is not on the regular menu but was put together for the restaurant's first wine dinner. When a bill of fare states that the final course will be fresh fruit, it often seems like a cop-out, an easy substitute for some more luscious, gooey concoction. But not in this case. Here, the plate held groupings of kiwi, fig, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, tiny Champagne grapes, and a large dollop of sweetened cream. Sugar was lightly dusted over all of this so that the grapes looked like pale holly berries veiled with winter's first delicate snowfall. It was beautiful.
The menu is small, but there are standard Greek choices such as shish kebab (lamb, beef or chicken), moussaka, pastitsio, stifado (stewed beef), a good fish plaki, and Greek-style rice pudding and baklava. Braised lamb shanks are offered several nights a week. Another occasional dish is shrimp baked with feta cheese, fresh tomatoes and basil. Houndalas' own creation is chicken Olympia, a packet of filo dough containing feta, fontina and mozzarella cheeses, roasted sweet pepper, onion and cilantro with the chicken.
Dinners include bread and a platter of Greek salad (cucumbers, tomato, red onion, feta and Greek olives). Lemon potatoes or orzo and a vegetable accompany the main dish. One night's broccoli in lemon-dill sauce demonstrated the care taken in the kitchen here. How easy it would have been to cook the broccoli in advance, then reheat it with the sauce. But no. Here, the vegetable was plunged into boiling water to order and remained green and a tad crunchy.
Some prices: the Greek pizza is $4.50; lamb shish kebab, $13; salmon Athenian, $13.50; sauteed squid with lemon and capers, $4.50, and moussaka, $12. An assortment of appetizers, among them stuffed grape leaves, Greek meatballs and filo pastries stuffed with spinach and cheese is $5.50.
Le Petit Greek, 127 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 464-5160. Open 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday. Takes all major credit cards. Street parking.