"Have you ever been to Greece?" our waiter asked after we had situated ourselves at the bar at Taverna in downtown Palo Alto. I responded that I had, many years ago.
"Welcome back," he said, with great sincerity.
Such an exchange might have felt hokey at another restaurant. Not at Taverna. True, the Whole Foods looming across the street makes it difficult to buy completely into the up-market, Greek islands fantasy that Taverna is going for. But everything else about this six-month-old, jewel box of a restaurant exudes Hellenic hospitality, from the dreamy blue walls to the world-class service. The waiters are not just knowledgeable, friendly and efficient, but darn near perfect. From the moment you sit down, you feel completely taken care of by this ultra-professional crew. Squint a little and you can almost believe you've stumbled into a little family-run tavern on the Aegean -- a really upscale tavern, that is.
Taverna is tiny, just a dozen tables inside and another handful outside, so it is almost always bustling and can get quite noisy at peak times. You might end a Saturday night dinner a little hoarse, but that's a small price to pay for an evening at this cozy, corner restaurant, which already has established itself as a formidable rival to the Bay Area's most storied Greek restaurants.
Indeed, owners Thanasis Pashalidis, 35, and Hakan Bala, 42, learned the finer points of upscale Greek cuisine through their many collective years at San Francisco's Kokkari and Palo Alto's Evvia. Pashalidis, who grew up in Greece and Queens, also was the head waiter for seven years at Michelin-starred The Village Pub in Woodside. Bala is a native of Turkey who honed his service skills on the Royal Caribbean cruise line before disembarking in Palo Alto for a decade-long stint at Evvia.
These self-assured young restaurateurs appear to have made few, if any, major missteps in their first outing as owners. Their executive chef is their longtime friend William Roberts, formerly head chef at Los Gatos' Dio Deka and also a Village Pub alum. Roberts is demonstrating his talent for highbrow, innovative cuisine that takes direction from traditional Mediterranean recipes.
Taverna also distinguishes itself with classy touches that have gone by the wayside even in many fine-dining restaurants. A complimentary basket of Acme sourdough bread and a terrine of salted European-style butter arrives pre-dinner. There's also a small bowl of dried, seasoned chickpeas and golden raisins, followed by an amuse-bouche. In late summer, we were treated to a gazpacho-inspired tomato-melon soup served in a ceramic white cup.
Taverna's seasonal, locally sourced menu is divided into "bites," "small plates" and "entrees," a structure that inspires sharing. So, while it is easy to spend well over $100 a person for dinner, it also is possible to craft a substantial, tapas-like meal without even venturing into the entrees. That said, if the nightly special happens to be the 38 North Sonoma duck breast -- dry aged for eight days and then pan seared and served with a smoked eggplant and pine nut purée, wild porcini mushrooms and black mission figs ($46) -- please consider that outstanding entrée. Enjoy it with the Domaine Mercouri ($59 for a bottle), a velvety, dry red from the Peloponnese in Southern Greece. The grilled lamb chops ($54) also were perfectly executed, but some diners might feel inclined to request a European Union bailout after ordering. Two small chops, served only with a small wedge of rather bland, crispy eggplant, seemed paltry at the price point, even if the lamb is free range from Dixon-based Superior Farms.
Koulouri ($3), a popular Greek street food, is a bread ring covered in sesame seeds -- it looks a little like an oversized bagel. It is crunchy on the outside and chewy inside, served here with lamb fat-infused butter. Taramosalata ($11) is a caviar spread made from cod and salmon roe, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and bread, which serves as the purée's starchy thickener. House-made potato chips are the perfect vehicle for scooping up this decadent dip. I ordered taramosalata on both of my visits and all my dining companions declared it their new obsession.
The fisherman meze ($24) showcased four excellent offerings on one plate: a chunky potato salad, a terrine of cold salmon, a salad of shaved fennel with anchovies and a hunk of halibut smothered in a sweet-savory relish of raisins, onions and spices. The Shepherd meze ($24), with wedges of Greek cheeses, artisanal charcuterie, roasted peppers and pickled green beans, was less interesting and less copious. A side of fries ($6) came to the table piping hot and crispy, dusted with herbs and served with a feta aioli.
From the "small plates" section, we tried the octopus ($17), served with fava beans and a pepper relish. The tentacles were tender, but too charred for my taste. You could almost taste the grill. The thalassina ($26) was one of the prettiest dishes we ordered, colorful towers of ripe melon, each edifice topped with a Hokkaido scallop, a piece of calamari or a prawn. Saganaki ($16) is another eye-catcher: a triangle of gently fried kefalograveria (a mild cheese made from sheep's and goat's milk) served with caramelized onions, doused with the brandy-and-wine spirit Metaxa and set afire tableside.
Aside from the duck special, the entrees I tried were a little less inspired than the rest of the menu. A small bowl of tagliatelle ("makaronia") ($28) was prepared with Sweet 100 tomatoes, summer squash and feta bread crumbs, but left my French chef friend shrugging and noting that the pasta was a touch too al dente for his taste. The whole game hen ($34), cut into chunks and served with crispy golden potatoes, was juicy and expertly prepared, but not memorable.
The wine list tilts toward high-end Greek, French and California vintages. Many of the selections cater to the sophisticated palate and to the expense account, but care has been taken to ensure the more modest offerings stand up to scrutiny. A bottle of Varda Vineyards sauvignon blanc ($36), the least expensive bottle of white on the menu, was light, crisp and paired divinely with the Mt. Lassen trout ($37), just as our server said it would. A liquor license is coming soon.
I did not try the $6 glass of Retsina Malamatina from Thessaloniki, but was delighted to see an upscale restaurant offering a glass of white wine at a price point many similarly situated establishments would sneer at. A $6 dollar glass of wine might seem a small detail, but I think it speaks to the vibe of inclusiveness and friendliness they are taking great efforts to cultivate here.
"Every day is a gift," declares Taverna's website and menu. It is a truism of which we shouldn't need to be reminded. But where better to be reminded of the joy of life but when you're enjoying exceptional food and wine brought to you by someone who genuinely seems to want to know if you've ever been to Greece.
800 Emerson St., Palo Alto
Hours: Monday-Saturday 5-10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Alcohol: Wine and beer