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[whitespace] Vasili He Knows the Skordalia: Vasili has become an icon of Santa Cruz dining.

It's Greek To Me

Vasili's is the new world taverna to feed your inner Zorba

By Christina Waters

MAYBE VASILI'S hasn't overlooked Mission Street long enough to have catered Socrates' last meal, but it sure seems that way.

Wisely choosing to leave a sensational formula alone, the festive management of the ageless taverna just keeps on serving up robust Greek cooking in a reassuringly simple setting. You show up, and they do the rest.

And while you wait for your table, you can check out a knickknack collection worthy of the gods. Greek flags, bazoukis, life preservers, countless photos of the owner dancing with his entire extended family, a big statue of Demeter, dolls in national costume, plastic grapes, wicker wine bottles, silk flowers, paper place mats, medallions of Achilles and Ajax, garlands of garlic and a "You bet your baklava I'm Greek" license plate.

There's more to peruse, but that requires a tumbler of the pine-scented retsina that is our libation of choice at Vasili's ($5 per minipitcher). Combat waitresses in tank tops and Mediterranean attitude take your order and produce your food with masterful inevitability. Nobody has a bad time at Vasili's, where the sensory gifts of the Aegean--lemon, oregano and garlic--perfume everything. Everything.

Jack loved his perennial starter of horiatiki salata, a one-plate orgy of tomatoes, crumbly goat cheese, cucumbers, bell peppers, pepperoncini and a dusting of capers ($3.25). A feta accompli, the dish is intense with vinegar and oregano and exceptionally delicious Greek (what else?) olives. It's definitely a great way to start off life at Vasili's, where weekend evenings can easily erupt into one giant group line dance. Spiral dance, actually.

My appetizer of dolmathes offered plenty of tender grape leaves stuffed with a pleasant though rather mild filling of rice and lemon unencumbered by tomato or meat ($2.25). For these prices, who's complaining? Retsina must be the friendliest booze on the planet, I've decided. It puts your entire being into a state of glow and the pungent quasi-turpentine flavor (an acquired taste that I long ago acquired) cuts through the richness of the main course meat dishes. Speaking of which, at exactly the moment desired, our huge platters arrived.

The whole glory of Greek cooking is its reliance on time-honored ingredients--lamb, pork, yogurt, feta, cucumbers, olives, oregano, rosemary--prepared in ways that honor the rugged, outdoor traditions of this rocky maritime nation. Hence you absolutely cannot go wrong with an order of anything grilled on a skewer. Jack likes chicken and pork, so he ordered a skewer of each, grilled to juicy perfection and scented by the omnipresent marinade of red wine, lemon, garlic and oregano ($13). This dish came with Jack's choice of lemon and rice soup (not the best choice he's ever made), and a tangle of tomato-laced rice pilaf.

My nightly special of pork tenderloin charbroiled with the house menestra (pilaf with tomatoes and veggies all mixed into one delicious crimson goo) was lavish and very good ($14.95). I also loved the quartered roast potatoes--yes, they were more than faintly seasoned with garlic and lemon--that make the perfect partners for the lean, succulent pork. Herbs, garlic, wine and lemon lent their magic to every bite. Seriously, there was so much of the pork tenderloin that it came home with us and made a wonderful lunch the next day. Vasili's definitely provides a Grecian formula for world-class leftovers (sorry, some puns simply cannot be ignored).

Feeling an Olympian sense of well-being, we toasted this appealing dining room with our very last sips of retsina, and made our way through the throng and out into the starry night.

Vasili's Greek Taverna
Address: 1501-A Mission St., Santa Cruz
Phone: 831.458.9808
Hours: Open Wed-Sun 11am-9pm.
No credit cards! Bring cash.
Ambience: *** You can't beat the combination of over-the-top Greek pride and Spartan table settings.
Service: *** On the ball, precise and friendly in a take-charge way
Cuisine: **1/2 As good as it has to be, and then some, the food matches the mood
Overall: No fear of Greeks bearing gifts--and Vasili's is a well-seasoned love letter to our Greco-California appetites.

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From the August 21-28, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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