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Cooking With Greece 

When execution catches up with ambition, OPA! on 25th will be a medal-contender.

Meat and two veg are glamorously transformed in - stuffed airline chicken with potatoes and spinach. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Meat and two veg are glamorously transformed in stuffed airline chicken with potatoes and spinach.
Quirky, creative, and full of panache, OPA! on 25th is one more little oasis of hipitude in an Ohio City neighborhood that exudes culinary character. Anchored by the West Side Market, the restaurants, cafés, and pubs along this stretch of West 25th Street offer an international array of dining destinations that range from Puerto Rican to Middle Eastern, and with its often smart-and-sassy chops, caterer-and-restaurateur Dimitris Ragousis's "New Greek-American" kitchen seems destined to fit right in.

Ragousis, who opened the restaurant in May, already has a firm grip on the "funky-neighborhood-dining-room" thing. Arrayed to the nines in vintage 1950s fashions, from its pink-painted tin ceiling to the aqua draperies and the Spiro-graphically decorated shades on the drum lamps, the narrow, 38-seat bistro handily channels that shabby-chic ambiance that's so popular in Cleveland's casual West Side eateries. But at the same time, such rustic touches as an exposed brick wall and rough-hewn limestone tabletops whisper reminders of the menu's Greek heritage and keep the interior fresh and enticing. A small sidewalk patio and a soundtrack of acid jazz up the urban ante, and the Asian "good-luck" kitty perpetually waving its paw to passersby from a shelf near the front door . . . well, that's where the quirkiness comes in.

OPA is new enough that it hasn't yet secured a liquor license. Meantime, however, a $5 corking fee (per bottle of wine or six-pack of beer) will secure you a BYOB option, stemware provided. But while his restaurant may still be in its childhood, Ragousis himself has his oven mitts full, as he and his staff cook up big bills of out-of-the-ordinary fare for the restaurant's lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch while continuing to operate his popular catering company.

Don't come here looking for gyros and flaming cheese. Instead, the kitchen takes Mediterranean flavors simply as a starting point for dishes that are as freewheeling and idiosyncratic as Clevelanders themselves. At midday, for instance, there are Moroccan-spiced burgers, roasted chicken wraps zapped with coconut and curry, and citrus-glazed meatball subs. For dinner, guests can choose from dishes like braised lamb shanks, pastitsio, and broiled filet of trout. And during Sunday brunch, the kitchen rolls out a variety of French toasts, stratas, and scrambled-egg wraps. Of course, that doesn't count the assorted side dishes, salads, and homemade desserts, or the standout beverages like the strong European coffee over ice or lemonade infused with orange-blossom essences. While there is some overlap between the menus, by any measure the sum of all these options equals one ambitious undertaking. And, we suspect, that's one of the reasons that the product sometimes comes up short, either in conception or execution.

In fact, flaws ranged from such oversights as mealy, overcooked home fries and stale baklava to the poorly conceived "berry-stuffed" French toast (actually, a dull sandwich of thickly sliced white bread, lightly battered and sautéed on the outside, then slapped around a scant schmear of apricot jam and a miserly scattering of blueberries and thinly sliced strawberries) and the somnambulistic Sofia's macaroni and cheese, a boundless pale ocean of penne in a blandish herbed cream sauce that became tedious after a dozen or so bites.

Not that there weren't high points too. The kitchen turned in a fine performance during a weekday lunch, for instance, with dishes that consistently surprised us. For one, there was the revelatory spanakopita -- an ultra-buttery phyllo shell so crisp that it shattered like ice, overstuffed with creamy feta cheese, onions, herbs, and emerald-green sautéed spinach, in place of the stringy gray stuff with the slightly sour tang that we've seen too much of. For another, there were the citrus-and-balsamic glazed meatballs -- vaguely fruity, but not, as we had feared, too sweet -- loaded onto a sub bun with baby spinach leaves, chopped scallions, and a big slab of pungent brie -- a combo that yields one of the most clever and delicious sandwiches in town.

Side dishes proved every bit as snazzy. Eye-catching purple-potato salad arrived in a light, slightly creamy vinaigrette made with champagne vinegar and olive oil; plump Israeli couscous luxuriated in a fine, minty pesto; and diced roasted redskins gained richness and zip from a lemony mustard sauce -- as well as irresistible crunch from a scattering of deeply toasted pine nuts.

For dessert, an ample square of nontraditional pistachio baklava -- topped with crisp, shredded phyllo and delicately flavored with an intimation of orange-blossom syrup in place of honey -- was large enough to provide four of us with a taste of something sweet. To drink, try the supercharged European coffee, layered with evaporated milk and served over ice, or the aromatic, floral lemonade that echoed and amplified the flavor of the pastry.

Hence our vast disappointment when the very same baklava, now ordered as the conclusion to a Sunday-morning brunch, turned out to be stale and soggy, with no toothsome crispness and not much flavor. But at least it was consistent with the remainder of the meal, which included those dried-out hash browns and the sorry "stuffed" French toast, as well as the Greek, a snoozy scrambled-egg wrap that never awoke, despite what should have been the rise-and-shine presence of aged provolone, pastourma (Greek dried beef), oregano, and spinach. (Here, we should mention that a meal at OPA! isn't exactly a cheap date, either. The disappointing brunch for three came to around $41 before tax and tip.)

Somewhere between the lively lunch and the snorific brunch, our dinner experience checked in. Among the evening's champs, a starter of triple-cream brie -- complemented by a swoosh of slightly sweet date-and-onion marmalade, then wrapped in phyllo and baked to a golden glow -- tasted indulgently rich, and the exceptional fresh fruit accompaniments (this evening, sweet-and-juicy Rainier cherries, fresh figs, and petite champagne grapes) lent both flavor and flare. The summery Greek salad -- chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, sweet onion slices, green olives, fat capers, and feta, in a mild red-wine vinaigrette -- was exemplary, too, as well as being large enough to share.

But while diners at other tables seemed orgasmic over their braised lamb shanks and garlic-scented meatballs on rice pilaf, we were stuck sloughing through mac and cheese purgatory. And although sides of slim haricots verts and garlicky smashed potatoes livened up an entrée of beef filet tournedos, the meat itself, though not overcooked, had a dusty, mealy texture -- so much so that even savory toppings of pancetta and Maytag blue cheese could not make our tastebuds rejoice.

With the arrival of dessert, though, almost all was forgiven. Tremendously sweet and nearly as moist as chocolate paté, the beet-and-black-raspberry brownie initially tasted almost cloying. But taken with the astringent slices of kumquat that accompanied it, the flavors evened out beautifully. With a demitasse of robust Greek coffee, the effect was thoroughly sublime.

Once every dish balances so precisely, the entire street will stand up and cheer, "Opa!"

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