Kokkari, San Francisco

Despite the large space divided in 3 dining rooms, Kokkari manages to create an intimate dining experience. Mix and matched high-back upholstered armchairs are elegant and comfortable. High ceilings and well-spaced tables give diners a sense of privacy even when the house is full. A large fireplace doubles as rotisserie, proudly displaying the night’s roast. Everything works well together in a carefully planned mix of rustic and chic. But this sense of well-designed privacy can die out if your table is near the bar.

The well-stocked bar was buzzing with excitement as the preppy yuppie crowd stood waiting for their tables. The ones without reservation showed no restraint in harassing the hostess for their self appointed right to sit.

Even with the house full, service was sharp. Our waitress was friendly and well versed on the somewhat complex Greek menu. Her confident persona was only spoiled by the oversized patterned tie she wore. Definitely out.

The menu

The traditional and modernized Greek menu features mostly game and seafood, like Arnisia Paidakia and Thalasina Scharas Yia Dio. Okay, the names may not be easy to understand–or order, but you can count on descriptions that are clear and appetizing. In case of doubt, ask the wait staff. And don’t be shy, try different things. For the most part, you can’t go wrong.

The meal

A great way to start is to order a selection of Greek spreads with house-made grilled pita bread. I recommend the last 3 on the menu: Tzatziki, Tirosalata and Favosalata. The first is prepared with Kokkari’s rich and creamy house-made Greek yogurt, a must order. The second, a blend of feta cheese, poblano peppers and olive oil; good spicy flavor but a bit on the salty side. Lastly, chickpeas and olive oil in a light spread that resembles a dense aired foam, served with capers and red onion wedges.

Other good call is the Arnisia Plevrakia - grilled lamb riblets with lemon & oregano. A more refined version of burnt ends.

For main courses, the restaurant offers daily selections of whole fish, prepared grilled or wood-oven roasted. In my last visit I tried a Mediterranean red snapper roasted with oregano, olive oil, Greek olives and potatoes. The fish was perfectly cooked and flavorful. Served deboned, head and tail on, all optional. You can order the whole fish by itself (Psari Psito) or as part of the seafood grill for two, which also includes prawns and mussels (Thalasina Scharas Yia Dio). That’s what I had.

The long plate took all the space on our table. Despite the somewhat messy presentation in which the fish was buried by its accompaniments, it looked very appetizing. Unfortunately, prawns were slightly overcooked and mussels could have used some seasoning. I’d recommend ordering the whole fish only.

Another notable main course is the Kokinisto me Manestra. The cinnamon scented braised lamb shank with orzo and myzithra is very tender and flavorful. You’ll need Flintstones appetite though.

In all the times I’ve been to Kokkari, I always had the same dessert. Not that there aren’t other compelling options on the menu but since I had it for the first time, I craved it ever since. Yiaourti me Meli - Greek yogurt with spiced walnuts & dates drizzled with Marshall's honey.

I thought it was time to try something different so reluctantly I opted for the night’s special, Ravani. A honey soaked cake with marinated strawberries, Greek dessert wine and, house-made yogurt. It was disappointing. Apart from the welcoming dollop of yogurt, the rest of the dessert was boring. More small town diner than a fine dining.

In short

If you’ve never been, Kokkari is definitely worth the visit. For the atmosphere and for the food. Although most main courses come in generous portions I’d recommend trying a few appetizers as they are a great way to sample the different flavors of the chef’s Greek cuisine. But most importantly, don’t leave without trying the Greek yogurt dessert. That alone is a reason to come back.

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