Ode to a Grecian Way
At one time or another, we've all been there. We've all sat forlornly at some wedding reception where the only people we knew were the ones who had dragged us to the "blessed event." Sometimes we have sulked until it was time to go, but other times, when the setting and the guests were loose and entertaining, we have been sucked into an experience that reaffirmed our notion that fun can happen anywhere, anytime.
Opa! Greek Restaurant and Club is a case study in the latter theory, with a couple of notable exceptions: The food is better than at any wedding reception you've ever attended, and you'll never have to worry about dancing with the bride's mother. (The belly dancer is another thing.)
Located on Westheimer in a numbingly nondescript strip mall, Opa! does not, at first glance, show any promise. The room has all the personality of a Kiwanis banquet room, despite the presence of a lonely mural of a Greek temple. But like a banquet room, the character of the place is derived not from the ambience, but from the people; Opa!'s tables are full of happy, boisterous diners. It's welcoming and relaxing. By the time the appetizers arrive, you realize you've lucked into a treasure.
Opa!'s Greek Sampler ($8.95) contains generous servings of spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese wrapped in an exceptionally delicate phyllo pastry), tyropita (feta cheese in phyllo), keftedes (meatballs with a crusty exterior and moist flavorful interior, hauntingly scented with cinnamon) and dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with a beautifully seasoned ground beef and rice filling). All of these were excellent, but by consensus, the best were the grape leaves, lighter and more delicate than usual, served with a lovely gossamer egg-and-lemon sauce.
We also enjoyed the flavor (and drama) of the sagnaki ($7.95). A large wedge of Greek cheese is heated in a broiler, then flamed tableside. The slightly chewy outside and rich, creamy inside make for memorable eating.
Opa!'s Greek Dip Platter ($6.95) is another good way to start the meal. It offers you a choice of three dips (out of the five on the menu). We selected the taramosalata (Greek red caviar beaten into a sauce similar to thick mayonnaise), melitzanosalata (eggplant, tahini, garlic and olive oil) and skordalia (the traditional bread and garlic dip). All were delicious and eminently dippable, custom-made for scooping with those piping-hot wedges of fresh pita bread provided for just that purpose.
After all those appetizers and a couple of glasses of an unusually good retsina (for the unfamiliar, retsina is a Greek white wine, flavored with pine resin, a concoction that usual bears a striking resemblance to turpentine), we were starting to feel like we were at a Greek wedding. Did I mention that the band had been playing for a while already?
After ordering our entrées, we opted for a stopgap plate of good, creamy feta cheese and salty olives drizzled with olive oil ($5.95) to help pass the time before the main dishes arrived. That's when the real distraction arrived: a belly dancer. And man, did she know how to work the room! By the time she finished, she had currency protruding from every nook and cranny of her costume, the temperature in the room had risen several degrees, and we were happily digging into our entrées.
I tried the Greek combination ($13.95), which offered a "taste" of pastitsio and moussaka, as well as two more of those heavenly grape leaves, and one piece each of spanakopita and tyropita. How good was it? Well, after ordering mine, I saw the same plate arrive at a nearby table, where two people proceeded to split it, then take the sizable remains home with them. I'm proud (or embarrassed, I'm not sure which) to state that I finished it all by myself, and it was worth every loosened notch on my belt. Moussaka and pastitsio could be called variations on a theme: A wonderfully spiced (pepper, cinnamon, olive oil) mixture of ground beef and tomato is layered with either eggplant (in the case of the moussaka) or long macaroni (for the pastitsio). Either way, the items are topped with a rich béchamel sauce and baked until the sauce has the consistency of custard. Wonderful stuff.
The Snapper Filet Athenian ($17.95) also earned my belt-loosening approval; it's a firm, meaty fillet stuffed with a robust mixture of spinach, feta cheese and herbs. A gutsy and flavorful dish. Equally good was the Fisherman's Platter ($17.95), large, tender shrimp, scallops and calamari, sautéed in olive oil, garlic and mushrooms and served with white-wine-lemon sauce. The seafood triumvirate was rounded out with the Shrimp Turkolimano ($15.95), a lovely casserole of shrimp served in a lusty tomato sauce with a crusty feta cheese topping.
If you're in the mood for meat, try the roast leg of lamb ($14.95), redolent with tender slices of garlic and herbs. I should note that nearly all entrées are served with a choice of a good Greek salad or an equally good Chicken Avgolemono (a soup flavored with egg, lemon and rice) as well as roasted potatoes and a vegetable of the day. Unfortunately, on the night we visited, the vegetable of the day seemed to be canned mixed vegetables, a rare misstep in an otherwise terrific meal.
By the time the dinner plates had been cleared and desserts and coffee ordered, the belly dancer was gone, replaced by a singer looking for all the world like a Greek Stevie Nicks. As the baklava and galaktobouriko (both $3.50 and delicious) and the strong, sweet Greek coffee ($2.50) arrived, the singer had broken into her rendition of "Never on Sunday" (in Greek of course) and half the patrons were on their feet dancing. I leaned back in my chair content, with silly grin on my face. I may have walked into Opa! a stranger, but I certainly felt at home by the time I left.
Opa! Greek Restaurant and Club, 13155 Westheimer, Suite 117, (281)558-4925.
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