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Old world classics at Veranda Greek Taverna

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"Tell them that Yanni is their host!" Yanni Kasarhis says jubilantly. I'm talking to Kasarhis on the phone, trying to get the backstory of Veranda Greek Taverna, the Roswell restaurant where I've just had some astonishingly good Greek food. I'm getting a little information and a lot of enthusiasm. Hospitality is high on the priority list at Veranda.

Here's what I did find out: Kasarhis (who, along with his wife Mary, is originally from Athens, Greece) was one of Taverna Plaka's original owners. After he sold Taverna Plaka, he worked as a server at his sister's restaurant, the Peachtree Diner, where he met Pete Pukish. Pukish had a pool hall in Roswell that wasn't doing too well. He wondered if Kasarhis might want to go into the Greek food business again. And so Veranda was born about a year ago using Pukish's space, Kasarhis' management and Mary's family recipes. Chef Clifford Tukes, who Kasarhis first met at Taverna Plaka, was brought in to execute those recipes.

It makes sense that the space was originally conceived as a pool hall – it still has that feel to it, with long open rooms punctuated by lattice and vines and a jumble of tables. The owners spruce up the atmosphere with a soundtrack of crazy Greek techno-pop, unless you're there on Saturday night when the belly dancers take over.

While gyrating bellies are certainly enticing, the nights to hit Veranda are Thursdays and Sundays when the restaurant forgoes its regular menu and serves everything tapas style for $5 a plate (as well as $5 martinis). Such flexibility allows you to sample more of the menu, which is a very good thing at Veranda.

Seafood dishes stand out, particularly the incredibly tender and sweet xtapodi (grilled octopus). When I asked Kasarhis what the secret was to getting the octopus so tender, without a hint of the rubbery or chewy texture often present, he replied, "It is a real secret."

Crispy fried smelts served with a bright tartar sauce made me wonder why more restaurants don't serve the small, sweet fish. Grilled salmon comes a tad overcooked, but is worth ordering for the lemony couscous served underneath.

The Kritikos Dakos – basically a Cretan version of Italy's panzanella salad – pairs feta with tomatoes and olive oil-soaked bread. The salty cheese plays off the tang of tomatoes, and the bread grounds the other ingredients with its alternately soggy and crisp textures.

Lamb shows up in a number of dishes, from lamb chops, which again were slightly overcooked, to kleftiko – stewed lamb and veggies encased in phyllo – to youvetsi, a stew of lamb, tomato and orzo pasta. The kleftiko is the most fun of the bunch – a crispy package that spills homey goodness when you break it open. The youvetsi was the most disappointing dish I had at Veranda, the tomato sauce and orzo mimicking standard, uninspired American-Italian fare.

The restaurant has an impressive 100-percent Greek wine list that goes far beyond retsina, the pine-flavored white wine Greece is best known for. I especially enjoyed the Amethystos sauvignon blanc, a wine that challenged its grape's usual citrus profile and instead delivered a rich, minerally drink that stood up well to the bold food.

I'd be remiss to ignore Veranda's martini list – a list that might be met with dismay from purists. It includes ingredients such as key lime and white chocolate, and cultural fusions such as Greek and Japanese. But get over it and order an "Opa!" martini, which combines ouzo with lemon juice and limoncello for a tart, liquorish-tinged killer of a drink.

Family run, honest Greek restaurants are hard to come by in Atlanta – a strange paradox in a city and state that are named for all things Greek (Why is that?). It's refreshing to come across a restaurant so free of pretension and so focused on great food. If you make the drive to Roswell, ask for Yanni – I hear he'll take good care of you.

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