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Thursday, September 27, 2007

CLUB MED

Mediterranean meals in a Dionysian setting

Posted on Thu, Sep 27, 2007 at 4:00 AM

The extreme makeover underway at Pointe Orlando has given rise to a number of upscale chains inside the sprawling entertainment complex – Tommy Bahama’s, Capital Grille and the Oceanaire Seafood Room to name but a few. But the latest, a grand whitewashed edifice at the very heart of the Pointe, sits like the Parthenon atop an Acropolis of tourist dollars, its aim to attract the hungry to its temple of Dionysian, not Athenian, feasts.

And vacationers will, undoubtedly, eat this place up. The platters of Greek and Mediterranean specialties are first-rate, but the food takes a back seat to the atmosphere which, for the most part, resembles a Mykonos discotheque more than it does a quaint Aegean taverna.

Here, ladies who are not so big, nor fat, nor Greek, gyrate atop tables to thumping beats; belly dancers perambulate around the octagonal dining room urging dorks to dance; and the raucous clapping, napkin-tossing and repetitive shouts of “Opa!” distract even the most focused conversationalists. A place to dine on a first date it’s not, but for birthdays and celebrations, there’s no better place.

Dinner began with a 20-something waiter clad in black scurrying to my table with mortar and pestle in hand. In it were a few simple ingredients – chickpeas, garlic, thyme and olive oil – which I was encouraged to mash into a rustic chunky hummus. Quite the clever (and labor-reducing) tactic to get diners immediately immersed into the Opa experience, but, more importantly, the hummus and warm pita bread made for a uniquely fresh complimentary appetizer. Such appetizers (or meze) comprise half of the enormous menu, a concept not unlike that of Spanish tapas. The keftedes ($4), a hot meze plate of three broiled balls of ground beef, were an herbaceous trio thanks to the liberal usage of oregano. The meatballs are served naked but, surprisingly, they didn’t need a starchy accompaniment.

A flutter of napkins rained down on my table just as I took a bite of saganaki cheese ($9). It seems that the servers are prone to random yelps of “Opa!,” necessitating a chuck of serviettes. Nevertheless, the big salty slab of fried kefalotyri cheese was enjoyably chewy, and a splash of lemon provided a righteous zing. To my amazement, the cheese, layered with metaxa brandy, wasn’t flambéed tableside as part of the spectacle. “The servers just aren’t experienced enough yet, and I don’t want to run the risk of patrons leaving with singed eyebrows,” the owner openly confided.

There’s no chance of such a conflagration with the mussels and ouzo ($8). The mollusks were huge, and the tomato-basil-oregano sauce was huge on flavor. The licorice essence of ouzo, however, wasn’t as pronounced as hoped; in fact, I could barely taste it all.

Most of the entrees are borne out of the wood-fired grill, but if you’re a sucker for moussaka ($12), the version offered here was just average. Layers of roasted eggplant, potatoes, ground beef and béchamel couldn’t compensate for the lack of seasonings, plus the dish was served tepid. The meat platter ($23) is truly a carnivore’s delight, but when mine arrived sans gyros, I was duly compensated for the oversight with complimentary shots of ouzo. “Opa!” indeed. Back to the platter, the soft, luscious cube of beef tenderloin was as good as I’ve ever tasted; I just wish they’d serve more than one cube. All the meats – pork loin, chicken fillet and the lamb chop – were infused with a lemony flavor and came served with spears of lemon potatoes and green beans. As you can probably surmise, lemon is a primary ingredient here, which appealed to my palate just fine. Gyros notwithstanding, a dollop of creamy tzatziki was all that was lacking.

Honeyed layers of phyllo pastry elevate the baklava ($5), best enjoyed with a demitasse of Greek coffee ($3.25); sokolatina ($6) is a mind-bogglingly rich mousse cake and the ultimate chocolate indulgence.

Even the most self-possessed of patrons can’t help but get caught up in Opa’s frenzied scene – “fun with a capital F,” says their website. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself atop a table, howling to the gathered and channeling your inner coyote ugly.

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