When I fall in love with a new restaurant, I fall hard. I check my calendar to figure out how soon I can return. Simultaneously, I begin thinking about what I’m going to eat during that next meal. And then, once I get home, I try to re-create some of the dishes that seduced me.
Which is why, the morning after my first visit to Kava, a recently opened Greek “neo-taverna” in the South End, I went to the market to buy tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, red, yellow, and green bell peppers, Kalamata olives, capers, feta cheese, and oregano. I combined my purchases together with several glugs of fruity olive oil — no vinegar — and sat down to enjoy Kava’s horiatiki salata, the celebrated “country” salad that’s as much a symbol of Greece as the Parthenon.
Simple, satisfying, and summery, the horiatiki salata is an edible metaphor for the Kava menu. It’s predicated on great ingredients (imported from Greece whenever possible), minimally prepared and unassumingly presented, minus the decorative gewgaws that so many contemporary kitchens find de rigueur. Kava’s chef is Colombian-born Jesus Preciado. The recipes are from owner George Axiotis, who’s Greek. The other owners are a Georgian guy and a Persian, who’s married to a Greek. They also own Trattoria Newbury and Abby Lane. Isn’t the American melting pot awesome?
At Kava, you can dine on a Greek island without leaving Boston. If you could moor a yacht on the corner of Shawmut Avenue and Union Park, you’d walk down the gangplank directly into the restaurant. It’s a tiny, rectangular space of whitewashed brick and distressed wood with tall ceilings, large windows, and a white marble bar. Lighting fixtures are made of hemp ship rope; the furniture is wicker. On one wall, there’s a dramatic painted mural of a weathered fisherman with piercing eyes; on another, framed photos of famous Greeks like Aristotle Onassis, Melina Mercouri, and Anthony Quinn (who was actually born in Mexico, Zorba notwithstanding).
Kava can fit up to 40 people inside with a shoehorn, with room for another dozen on the sidewalk patio. The noise level can be deafening. In between shouted conversations, you can hear Greek pop music. The amiable serving staff is remarkably chill given the party atmosphere. Be forewarned: There are no reservations, lines are common, and the wait can stretch up to two hours.
But that wait is definitely worth it when you can bliss out on mezedes (small plates) like gigandes, giant lima beans stewed in carrot tomato sauce, or chunks of chewy, grilled octopus, doused with olive oil, lemon juice, and a pinch of oregano. Lemony lahano dolmades (stuffed cabbage) are densely packed ovals of ground beef and rice, rolled tight in cabbage leaves and slow-cooked until tender. Spanakopita, a.k.a. spinach pie, that ubiquitous staple of Greek-American delis and vegetarian potluck suppers, is a scrumptious revelation when it’s made with fresh spinach, imported feta, and homemade phyllo pastry.
Imam (i.e., “imam baildi” meaning “the cleric swooned”) is a traditional Eastern Mediterranean dish of eggplant, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and stringy kasseri cheese that arrives bubbling hot in an enameled casserole. The Greek aperitif ouzo adds its distinctive anise aroma to mussels steamed with tomato, onion, and garlic. A white metal bucket is filled to the brim with maritha, battered and fried smelts, begging to be picked up with your fingertips and consumed in one or two bites.
Lamb is a mainstay of Greek cooking. Kava’s moist keftedes, lamb meatballs, are served on a bed of tzatziki, cucumber and garlic yogurt, and redolent of mint. Pantzaria is a popular Greek salad of pickled beets paired with intensely garlicky scordalia, pureed potato dip. The roka salata of arugula, watermelon, and candied walnuts, tossed in lemon vinaigrette, is citrusy sweet and peppery, a texturally terrific palate pleaser that couldn’t be more refreshing.
Dinner is a shared experience. Mezedes and salads can easily be split among two to four people, depending on how hungry you are. Entrees are slightly larger and sides are slightly smaller. Do not order everything at once! The butcher paper-covered tables are small, and when the kitchen starts sending out dishes, one after another, gastronomic gridlock ensues.
A mixed grill platter entrée is several meaty mezedes on one plate: plump, medium-rare lamb chops, skewers of lemon marinated chicken and pork souvlaki kebabs, and sliced loukaniko sausage, flavored with fennel seed and chile pepper. Moussaka is a creamy delight of layered eggplant, potatoes, béchamel, and cinnamony ground beef tomato sauce as good as any Greek grandma might make.
Cinnamon, tomato, and a homey touch reunite in uvetsi, a slow-stewed beef short rib nestled in a bowl of rice-shaped orzo pasta that has soaked up the fragrant braising juices. Grilled Mediterranean sea bass is delectably minimalist: a boned, whole fish accompanied by a container of olive oil, oregano, and lemon juice to pour over the firm flesh and charred skin.
Sides include wedges of potato baked in olive oil, oregano, and lemon; Greek fries, tossed with crumbled feta and oregano; and a casserole of colorful peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, and potatoes roasted until they’re almost falling apart. It’s a Grecian version of ratatouille.
There are only three desserts: buttery baklava; Greek yogurt with walnuts and honey; and milfei cake, a disappointingly saccharine confection of soggy vanilla cookies and pastry cream. A demitasse of sludgy, high-test Greek coffee may keep you awake all night.
While Kava’s menu prices are surprisingly affordable, that doesn’t extend to wine. The cheapest bottle on the almost entirely Greek list is $45, while the most expensive is $150. But look carefully through the wines by the glass and you’ll find a 500ml bottle of Kechribari Retsina for only 14 bucks. This centuries-old Hellenic wine with its unique pine resin taste (which oenophiles either adore or abhor) is a natural complement to the hearty cuisine. At Kava, you drink it out of glass water tumblers, and it feels almost like you’re at some seaside hole-in-the-wall on Mykonos.
315 Shawmut Ave., South End, Boston, 617-356-1100, www.kavaneotaverna.com
All major credit cards accepted. Step at entrance; bathroom down a flight of stairs.
Prices: Appetizers $6-$15. Entrees $20-$32. Desserts $7.
Hours: Mon-Wed 5-11 p.m., Thu-Fri 5-11:30 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m., Sun 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Noise Level: Loud
What to order: Fried smelts, horiatiki salata, mixed grill, baklava
Mat Schaffer can be reached at email@example.com.