MEAT AND GREET: Chef Saritsoglous Meat Board is inspired by the classic combo of kebabs and beer.
The first time I ate at Santucci’s the first of what would be many, many times before this cozy Bella Vista pizzeria became my go-to take-out joint I was impressed not only by the upside-down square pies and zesty black-bottomed stromboli, but also by the quality of the cooking in general. What made Santucci’s a great spot was that you could get amazing food beyond pizza: lively salads, spiced boar meatballs, shades-of-Vetri pastas. It was a neighborhood BYOB disguised as a pizzeria, and the man responsible for the better-than-you’d-expect food was chef Bobby Saritsoglou.
I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. George Tsiouris, who owns four-year-old Greek-chic Opa in Midtown Village with his sister, Vasiliki, ate at Santucci’s and offered Saritsoglou a job. “Everywhere I’ve worked, I tried to add Greek flavors,” says Saritsoglou, “but this was the chance to cook a full Greek menu, the food of my family and my ancestry.”
Saritsoglou took over the kitchen at Opa in March, slowly turning over the menu of familiar Greek classics into an exciting, multi-ethnic tour-de-force that more closely resembles the cooking at places like Kanella and Zahav. Opa has always been a solid restaurant, somewhere third dates pair off by the window seats facing Sansom and happy-hour romances bud at the big, square, quartz bar. Now it’s a great restaurant, one that pulls deep from Hellenic tradition, “bringing to the table things people may not know as Greek,” says Saritsoglou, like cured meats, eggy pastas, exotic spices and the lacto-fermented pickles called tursi. “Growing up my house smelled all the time because my father always had big buckets of tursi fermenting. When I started going to Greek restaurants, I didn’t understand why they didn’t have them, too,” the chef says.
He’s rectified that at Opa, sliding the funky, snappy ferments turmeric-stained cauliflower, carrots sweetened with apple, spicy green tomato, herbed fennel on to a twisted leg of octopus that has been braised four hours in white wine, marinated in olive oil, lemon and orange, flashed on the grill and posed on a smear of garlicky skordalia. Andy Brown, the original chef at Opa, served a phenomenal octopus inside this candlelit, grotto-like dining room; this specimen is its tender, honorable heir.
All dinners begin with the “Broken Plate” bread service, a shattered plank of phyllo that Saritsoglou makes in-house according to his mother’s recipe. Bready, buttery, salty and elemental, it sets the tone. More phyllo appeared later, this one imported and folded into sweet-savory origami with sharp barrel-aged feta, honey, ouzo and black sesame seeds. In a perfect world, I would eat this flaky gold package, called tiropita, every day for the rest of my life.
Another staple of the Greek diet most people don’t typically associate with the coast-lined country: uni. “When I was in Greece I had sea urchin all the time at local tavernas,” remembers Saritsoglou, who blends the apricot-colored roe into a lemony white wine sauce for a tangle of housemade egg noodles, meaty shrimp and clams like pats of butter. More uni, stacked on top, reinforces the dish’s sweet marine flavor.
But meat was where Saritsoglou really shined, whether in the bite-sized dolmades, smoky charred grape-leaf bundles rolled around aggressively spiced keftedes that positively quivered with juiciness, or the shareable Meat Board, a carnivore’s playground that shortly will become a new must-have dish in Philadelphia. Inspired by Greece’s kebab-and-beer psistaria, this scene co-starred four perfectly cooked proteins on a butcher-block backdrop: oregano-rubbed chicken so moist, the word “confit” hardly does it justice; uncased pork-and-beef soutzoukakia sausages shot through with woodsy za’atar; a take on loukaniko, a true sausage deeply perfumed with orange zest and fennel seed; and bifteki, which was like the most unearthly delicious burger patty you’ve ever eaten. The bifteki sat on a thick slice of tomato, a king on a scarlet cushion. I cut into the crunchy caramelized crust of the pan-fried 80/20 beef patty (a light dredge in flour is the key), revealing a glistening interior as red as the fruit it sat upon.
Saritsoglou painted the Meat Board with condiments (parsley pesto, tahini mustard, buttered onion fondue), but each protein sang with such clarity and purity, they rendered the accessories mere window dressing. The house-baked bread, on the other hand, was a critical addition. Sprinkled with za’atar, a soft baguette-like loaf ran the length of the landscape, while a koulouri bread ring brought to mind a cross between a Montreal bagel and an Italian taralli cookie, paved here in sesame seeds.
Not everything at Opa was this transcendent. Grilled asparagus, pan-roasted oyster mushrooms and housemade yogurt tzatziki were lovely together, but the dry brown barley toast on which they mingled was a throwback to a time when hardscrabble Greeks would use toasting as a way to preserve fresh bread for months. Even Saritsoglou’s modernized version should stay in the past. A side of lemony gigantes beans was undercooked. The cocktail list lacked a clear identity every drink seems to contain gin, lavender, honey or lime and seeing big names like Corona and Amstel on the beer list hurt my soul.
Best to stick to wine at Opa; it’s mostly Greek, and the wonderful staffers know their stuff. For dessert, go with the nutty halva pudding or velvety ice creams in flavors like honey and sour cherry; none of the above disappointed. I finished the last scoop, snuggled against a torn hunk of melomakarona, a cakey, amber ginger cookie, and ate it with the satisfaction of knowing that Bobby Saritsoglou was finally home.
OPA // 1311 Sansom St., 215-545-0170, opaphiladelphia.com. Dinner, Mon.-Sat., 5-11 p.m. and Sun., 1-9 p.m.; lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.