My friend Harry, a Greek physicist living in London, assures me that sirtaki, that line dance in which his countrymen link arms to shoulders Zorba-like, "can be quite uplifting." He also insists that belly dancing "can be quite beautiful."
So it would be unfair to dismiss both experiences, unavoidable at the new Taverna Plaka (2196 Cheshire Bridge Rd., 404-636-2284), as inauthentic, although Harry agrees they are most popular at tourist restaurants in Greece. Perhaps if I drank large quantities of ouzo I could better appreciate the mania of such performances.
Even good food would help. But I have not had very good food at Plaka. On my first visit to the restaurant, which has been open almost two months, I ordered a giant prawn that was served on its back, looking like the huge bug-eyed model of a grasshopper I had as a kid. I pierced the shell, which exuded pink goo. As I ate the undercooked, slightly sour flesh of the tail, two belly dancers shook violently five inches from my face. Opa! It's a satanic ritual!
At a subsequent visit, rotisserie lamb - 18 ounces of it and mainly bone - was chewy and so greasy in its marinade of lemon-spiked olive oil that I could not eat more than few bites. There were weird black pieces of skin which I put on Wayne's plate since he, having sacrificed all critical objectivity to nostalgia for Mykonos, kept raving about the place, freely dispensing dollars to the belly dancers to make them go away.
His own entree, a whole striped bass, black with herbs and oil, tasted fishy and was over-cooked. When he ordered it, our server, a delightful Bulgarian woman, warned him that it would take 30 minutes to prepare. We balked and she replied, "Well, if you've eaten at Kyma, you know this is standard." Believe me, this is not Kyma's quality.
The best choice here is to get drunk, dance and order mezze. The restaurant has a lengthy menu of the appetizer-size dishes and they are mainly better than the entrees. An exception is the giant beans cooked far too long with tomatoes and dill. A marinated eggplant spread is not as good as the Middle Eastern baba ganoush but it's a bit more complex with some herbs and red onion. Actually, I like the do-it-yourself hummus that comes at the meal's start even better. The server hands you a big wooden mortar and pestle in which you grind chickpeas with oil and seasonings.
Pork and lamb sausage is a large serving, very spicy and very chewy, but irresistible. Squeeze lots of lemon over it. Fried smelts were a bit overcooked but I was glad to find them and sorry the grilled sardines were not available. (Nor were the marinated sweetbreads.) A grilled octopus salad, heavy with red wine vinegar, was passable but tasted like it had been made much too long ago.
Prices are reasonable. Most entrees are well under $20, with the exception of market-priced fish (like Wayne's $23 sea bass). Meze average $6. Plaka has a lengthy list of Greek wines, including retsinas, and some fascinating martinis, a few of which may have you sirtaki-dancing with the staff, happily wearing in your hair the huge prawn you couldn't eat.