By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Nary a photograph of Athens or Santorini island hang inside Meze Greek Fusion. The typical aesthetics seen in most Greek restaurants, such as blue and white walls, are completely missing while the menu succumbs slightly to the culinary influences of Mexico, Italy and California.
The massive, industrial space flows warmly throughout two levels. On the ground floor are a couple of giant, gold-colored coins rotating above a handsome bar. They are the only decorations that suggest Greece, specifically its Hellenistic period. Ample seating options abound beneath an over-sized chandelier with additional tables extending into the mezzanine, which feels more intimate and rustic in comparison.
Brothers Raymond and Patrick Davoudi launched Meze in 2014 under GBOD (“Go Big or Die”) Hospitality Group, which also operates Prohibition, El Chingon Bad Ass Mexican, and Havana 1920, all located in the Gaslamp Quarter. They also recently opened an offshoot of Meze in Point Loma’s Liberty Public Market.
For Meze, they brought in Greek transplant Aleko Achtipes to head the kitchen and sommelier Ben Silver to oversee an extensive wine program. Silver is also a magician and performs tableside tricks on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. Visiting for lunch, we sadly missed out.
My go-to dish in Greek restaurants, albeit an invention born 50 years ago in a Chicago restaurant, is saganaki. It’s a dramatic starter of buttery kasseri cheese that’s flambeed before your eyes in brandy and extinguished with fresh-squeezed lemon.
In praise of the formidable flames, the server shouts “opa!” And before you know it, you’re swiping warm pita bread through the seared curd, which is crispy on the outside and fondue-like on the inside. Everything about it was done right here.
Skipping over the Italian-inspired “caprese greca” using feta cheese instead of mozzarella, and the “Greek tacos” (available with chicken, lamb, gyro meat or falafel), we opted instead for several Greek-leaning appetizers.
Potatoes lemonato were tender and stained deliciously yellow from citrus and good-quality olive oil. A bouquet of herbs — rosemary, oregano, dill and parsley — imparted exceptional flavor to the wedges. Varying combinations of those herbs arose without complaint in most other dishes we ordered.
Feta, kasseri and gorgonzola cheeses added sinful creaminess to a grilled Portobello mushroom, stuffed also with red and green bell peppers. However, a quartet of dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice, green onions and herbs) sported leaves too thick and stringy for my taste.
A sidekick of baba ghanoush offered desirable smokiness and a silkier texture than most. The pita bread served with it (and the saganaki) flaunted puffy waffle marks and tasted so fresh we couldn’t believe when told that it’s imported from Greece.
Before proceeding to entrees, we shared a sizable Greek salad containing the usual mix of romaine, cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes and feta cheese, dressed lightly in standard vinaigrette. Served well-chilled, it was neither bad or exciting.
Then came the dish that sent me over the moon — pork souvlaki marinated overnight and flecked heavily in herbs. It’s served with saffron-kissed basmati rice and sautéed vegetables, which struck that coveted duality of tender and crispy.
Maybe because the pork was so flavorful, I felt there should have been more of it, either added to a longer skewer or overflowing onto a second one. I didn’t want it to end. Yet in no time at all only a shiny metal rod sat under my chin.
Conversely, my friend’s falafel plate yielded leftovers. The tasty chickpea croquettes were in abundance. Though fried to a dark and sturdy crisp, they were steamy and fluffy inside. His accompaniments included pickled turnips cut into the shape of french fries and excellent cilantro-jalapeno hummus (substituted for plain) boasting a leafy-green glow.
One of the more unique entrees that we almost ordered is pasta lahano, a loose take on a cabbage-tomato-rice medley popular in rural Greece. This version excludes the rice in lieu of penne pasta and replaces the cabbage with artichoke hearts. Feta cheese and Kalamata olives are also present, which I imagine provides appealing bursts of salinity to the dish.
Also on my must-try list are the lamb-beef meatballs in roasted red pepper-tomato sauce; the charbroiled lamb chops in lemon sauce; and the Aegean octopus salad. Or if I’m hankering for a Greek take on something Americana, the “fiery feta” mac n’ cheese topped with pita crumbs sounds like a winner.
With or without a poster of the Acropolis staring you in the face, no Greek meal is complete without jabbing into a triangular slice of sweet baklava. To our satisfaction, this wasn’t so cloying. And it was packed densely with minced nuts and seasoned liberally with cinnamon.
A number of small plates, premium cocktails and Greek beers and wines are available for $3 to $8 during happy hour, which is held from 3 to 6 p.m., Sunday through Friday, and 10 p.m. to closing, Friday and Saturday.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.