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Eat Your Spinach!

The Chicago columnist Mike Royko once offered a can't-miss financial tip: never invest in a restaurant unless it's run by a short Greek. He had a point. With the immigrant determination that's shaped America, the Hellenic community has for decades loomed large in the food-service industry. Lest I be accused of ethnic stereotyping, let me hasten to add that somewhere there might very well be a restaurateur who's possessed of both a multiple-vowel surname and a cafe known for slow service, bad food and a general lackadaisical attitude toward ensuring the customer's return. I, however, have never seen such a thing, and doubt I ever will. God bless the Greeks; they know both the art of cooking and the business of running a restaurant.

There are more than a few families in Houston who have added to that cultural reputation. One clan has built a veritable empire of Greek, Cajun, Mexican, seafood and steak establishments -- if someday I spot a Papparibbean's along the feeder road, I won't be the least bit surprised, and I'll give long odds that the jerk chicken and conch soup they serve will be delicious. The Bibas family, by contrast, has contented themselves with a much smaller kingdom of two One's a Meals, Memorial Drive's Bibas Greek Pizza, and their flagship establishment on West Gray. While the Pappas family has most recently gone upscale with their high-dollar steak house on Westheimer, the Bibas patriarch, Haritos Bibas, has taken a cozier approach to building the capital of his kingdom. From parking-lot murals to patio tables to kitchen, a visit to Bibas Greek Restaurant -- the renovated and renamed Omonia -- is an affordable Aegean cruise whose memories are priceless.

Despite the frequently fractious differences among the various cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, there's at least one common, unifying thread. The Lebanese, Turks and, most especially, the Greeks all hold dear the notion that a meal without appetizers is merely a snack. At Bibas Greek Restaurant, the appetizer selection occupies a full third of the menu; indeed, a delightful meal can be assembled from appetizers alone. Of special note is the octopus broiled in wine vinegar, which transforms the muscular mollusk into a tangy treat of the same approximate texture and consistency as a prime rib eye. It's an innovative treatment that brings the delightful flavor of this seafood to the fore while eliminating the characteristic rubbery texture often associated with octopus. Unlike the more common treatment of breading and frying, the grilled-in-vinegar approach does absolutely nothing to disguise the appearance of what is, obviously, octopus. If you're squeamish about that, simply shut your eyes and eat. Your mouth will thank you.

Those not in the mood for seafood can choose from among a wide variety of tidbits that show the similarities between Greek appetite-teasers and the mainstays of the mezza trays found at Middle Eastern eateries. Melintzanosalata, for example, can be accurately described as a delicious, if hard to pronounce, variant of babaganoush. The taste of spiced, pureed eggplant on fresh pita transcends borders and languages. A tasty overview of Greek cuisine can be found on the hot appetizer platter, which combines samples of several specialties that can be ordered separately as either appetizers or entrees, among them dolmades, tiropita, spanakopita and keftedakia.

Don't be intimidated by these admittedly convoluted monikers. The Greek language may not adapt well to the Anglo tongue, but Greek food is an entirely different matter. Keftedakia, for example, are small beef meatballs whose cinnamon and bay leaf spicing can best be described as zippy, and the dolmades, beneath a tingling lemon sauce, wrap a Mediterranean dirty rice in grape leaves. Tiropita and spanakopita are small triangular pies of multilayered, paper-thin phyllo pastry wrapped around stuffings of, respectively, feta cheese and spinach laced with feta. The spanakopita, with its ethereal crust and hearty, rustic filling, is only the first example on this menu of the divine effect of feta on spinach. This is a good place to pull a fast one on kids who suspect Popeye of being an agent provocateur of some diabolical adult plot. Seldom does spinach become the delicacy that it is in Bibas' pastries, kalzones and pizzas.

One of the more impressive results of the transformation of Omonia into Bibas Greek Restaurant was the addition of the menu of Memorial Drive's Bibas Greek Pizza to the new restaurant's bill of fare. There's an unrestrained ethnocentrism in Haritos Bibas' voice when he explains that "the Greeks discovered pizza. The little island where I grew up, they've been baking little bits of bread covered with feta cheese and lots of imagination for thousands of years."

"Feta cheese and lots of imagination" is an apt description of the pizza that bears the family name. The Bibas pizza, with its sauteed spinach and onions layered between well-spiced tomato sauce and a happy melange of Parmesan, mozzarella and feta cheeses, is a fine entree, but it also works well as a shared appetizer or vegetable side dish. This is an establishment that understands the importance of appearances; the small, six-inch house pan pizza, divided into a sextet of appealing wedges with inch-high crust edges as handles, manages to look -- and be -- both cute and delicious.

The kalzones -- there are six varieties, including a ham and mozzarella delight and a mixed vegetable and cheese variant for meat-avoiding diners who aren't in a spinach sort of mood -- offer a thin, crispy crust that's somewhere between phyllo and pizza in texture and thickness, filled with a generous excess of stuffings. A kalzone filled with the same mix of onions, feta and spinach that adorns the Bibas pizza overcame a friend's childhood antipathy toward spinach, an antipathy that had lingered well into adulthood. This critic of green vegetables was even willing to admit (hypothetically, anyway) that a similar treatment might even render Brussels sprouts palatable. I wasn't really interested in testing that theory. I just ate my spinach gleefully, as though it had always been my favorite vegetable and those pre-adolescent dinner-table struggles with my parents never occurred.

Though much Greek is simply, well, Greek to many Americans, there are a pair of Greek nouns that have become familiar to even the most ethnically unaware -- gyro and kebab. Gyro meat, thinly sliced and heartily seasoned strips of roasted lamb and beef, is as ubiquitous on the Bibas menu as spinach. While the meat is tempting and serviceable as both a pizza topping and a kalzone stuffing, it's most inviting on the gyro platter alongside a generous order of hand-cut French fries, a basket of pita bread and an olive-laden tossed salad. This do-it-yourself sandwich kit, needing only a dab of the accompanying sour cream and yogurt tzatziki sauce as a condiment, is a delightful adult treatment of the childhood doctrine that hamburgers and fries are essential, complementary food groups. In adulthood, there's no need to deny this doctrine -- not so long as there's a slice of tender meat left to adorn a triangle of tzatziki-smeared pita, and one more perfectly fried slice of potato left on the platter.

Perhaps the most visually appealing entree available on Bibas Greek Restaurant's menu is the shrimp kebab. A dozen or so grilled shrimp, de-skewered but arranged in close formation, adorn a heaping bed of saffron-yellow rice and a pile of bell peppers, onions and mushrooms that were grilled on the same skewer as the shrimp. The visual impact is complemented, then supplanted, by the taste of the shrimp, which have been grilled to that ideal split-second when the shellfish, infused with the flavors of the onions and peppers, are thoroughly cooked while still being juicy and tender. For those who eschew red meat and shellfish without taking wholly to the vegetarian path, there's both a kebab of chicken breast and a renowned chicken souvlaki served in the same various manners as the gyro meat. Indeed, Bibas is a place where the unabashed omnivore can dine with a half-dozen friends of varying dietary restrictions -- with all coming away satisfied, and bearing a newfound enthusiasm for Greek folk music.

And while it's assumed that some negative comment is needed to ensure an objective review, over a number of visits only one slightly overbaked order of kreatopita -- whose sloppy joe-like filling wasn't marred in the least by a too crispy phyllo crust -- arose as an opportunity for carping. Call me prejudiced, but I'm not surprised. That's the way those Greeks do the restaurant thing.

Bibas Greek Restaurant, 607 West Gray, 523-0425.

Bibas Greek Restaurant:
hot appetizer platter, $8.95;
house pan pizza, $4.75;
spanakopita, $4.95;
gyro platter, $6.95;
shrimp kebab, $12.95.


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