Upon entering Kokkari Estiatorio, you get a sense of the true Greek dining experience. The warm and inviting dining room is filled with diners of all ages, enjoying hearty Mediterranean meals and animated conversations that are frequently interjected with bursts of laughter. Chef de Cuisine Tony Cervone serves more than just Greek food at Kokkari, he serves an experience in the Greek culture, where people take the time to savor their meal and enjoy their dining experience.
Kokkari not only offers an interesting and varied menu, but the restaurant also offers a full bar with an impressive wine list. Wine buyer Lyle Coffield has gathered a panoply of different wines from all over the world for Kokkari to proudly showcase. Old World and New World wines ensure that every dish Kokkari serves is paired not only with an appropriate selection, but one that is unique and interesting.
After a traffic-free trip across the Bay Bridge on a hot summer night, we were surprised to see that even after typical business hours, there was no street parking available. San Francisco’s financial district is notoriously short on adequate parking, especially street parking, but there are private and public lots available nearby and valet parking is available during the dinner hours for only $8.00 per vehicle.
We arrived at Kokkari a bit early for our 8:30 pm reservation and were greeted by the restaurants friendly and outgoing hostess. We were immediately struck by the charming interior, the rustic beams in the vaulted ceilings, the dark wooden flooring and the roaring fireplace. It was standing room only in the small bar, which was packed with the after-work crowd seemingly enjoying an extended happy hour. There wasn’t an empty seat in the main dining room making for a lively and spirited atmosphere. The lighting was low and provided a romantic setting for any special dinner.
Just beyond the main dining room is a hallway lined with cozy booths leading to another large dining room that features the restaurant’s open kitchen. This is where a plethora of expeditors and wait staff attend to each dish, preparing them to be presented to anxious awaiting guests. At the end of this dining room, near the elevators, is another small dining room, which doubles as a private dining area for larger parties. Down the elevator, near the restrooms, is yet another small, private room that has the look and feel of a wine cellar. This room has the capacity for smaller private parties, where 10 to 12 people would be secluded and comfortable.
After being seated in the main dining room at a lovely table for two, we began the arduous task of choosing an appetizer, or Mezethes, as they are referred to on Kokkari’s menu. We were greeted by our attentive server Max, whose extensive knowledge of the menu was certainly appreciated. Max’s in-depth menu presentation was not a simple recitation of the dishes, instead it was clear to us that he truly knew how each dish was prepared and was intimately familiar with each of the ingredients used to create these traditional culinary delights.
We decided on the Tzatziki with housemade grilled pita bread and the Soutzoukakia. While we waited for our appetizers, we were served our wine. I chose the 2008 Efeste, “Evergreen” Riesling, Columbia Valley. It tasted of citrus, and was crisp, cool and refreshing. My partner chose the only French red available by the glass, the 2006 Clos Chanteduc, Cotes du Rhone.
The Tzatziki and pita bread were served first. A generous portion of both the pita and the tzatziki made it an ideal dish for sharing. It was served on classic white china, with a small bowl of aromatic olives and a pile of fresh, delectable vegetables. The pita was soft and warm and the tzatziki sauce was chilled with bursts of zesty dill and cucumber flavors.
The Soutzoukakia, grilled meatballs with tomato and green olive compote, was next. Several tender, savory meatballs were swimming in the thick, red compote and were colorfully sprinkled with parsley and other fresh herbs and spices. The strong taste of olives, punctuated with exclamations of fresh tomato and oregano was absolutely mouthwatering. This spectacular appetizer was piping hot and the small, finely-ground meatballs were precisely bite-sized.
Following our appetizers, we were served our salads, or Salatas. My Horiatiki, a classic Greek salad consisting of tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, oregano, olives and feta cheese was bright and intriguing. This radiant mountain of fresh, crunchy vegetables had a slight aftertaste of dill that lingered for just long enough. This was my first experience with a lettuce-less salad and I was very pleased. The Horiatiki was an excellent induction to the Greek dining experience as it cleansed and prepared my palate for the rest of the meal.
My partner enjoyed his Domata Salata, a salad of heirloom tomatoes and purslane, with feta cheese, capers and olive oil. Both salads were presented beautifully in large white bowls, with various herbs and spices creating a colorful frame around the mound of succulent crudités. The vibrant colors of the vegetables were dulled only by the robust flavors that virtually transport you to a luscious Greek isle.
I chose the Galeos for my entrée, or Kirio Piato, as entrees are referred to on the menu. The thick slice of pan roasted Pacific halibut steak sat high on a pedestal of sweet corn and peppers with fresh tomato and olive sauce. Perched above its steamy, saporous accompaniments, the halibut shone with a thin sheen of olive oil as wafts of sweet corn mingled with the aromatic fish. The valley of sweet vegetables intermingled with the tangy sauce made for a delectable pairing. The halibut’s smooth texture indicated it was superbly roasted and was a bit of a lighter fare after the somewhat heavier appetizers we indulged in.
My dining companion had chosen a more decadent dish for his entrée, the Makaronia me Horta. This ravioli of braised greens and feta with mushrooms, pine nuts and summer squash was rich and flavorful. The strong, velvety feta with the crunchy pine nuts was an interesting combination that made this dish much more than just an ordinary pasta dish. The thick pillows of ravioli were bursting at the seams with cheese and mushrooms, making them not only satisfying, but sublime.
After a brief respite, we could not resist topping off this delicious meal with the traditional Mediterranean dessert, Baklava. Served warm, the pastry was so light and crisp and the honey and nuts so sweet and sticky, to serve it with ice cream was divine over-indulgence and delicious decadence.
As our evening came to a close and we left the restaurant, we noted that even at the late hour, the bar area was still standing room only and the hustle and bustle in the dining room showed no sign of slowing down. The wait staff was bustling around the dining room just as they had been when we arrived. The Kokkari experience was still in full swing. Needless to say, we will not hesitate to visit this San Francisco eatery again and again. As the Greeks say, “Opa!”