Tastings: Rafina Greek Taverna

Rafina, not surprisingly, is the name of a picturesque seacoast town in Greece. If you visit Rafina Greek Taverna in Boca Raton, try having a cocktail before dinner on the outside deck overlooking the water, and it will feel like you are visiting this little Mediterrean port town. Step inside the restaurant and enjoy the ambiance of clean, sleek white and black decor bathed in ocean blue ceiling lighting. But the best is yet to come when you experience the menu. The owners, Paul Tzikas and Yanni Agelopoulos are from Greece as well as the chef and some of the waiters, so every touch is authentic to the country.

Despite construction going on in the plaza, Yanni said that considering that his restaurant has been open for seventeen months, there is plenty of repeat business, and loyal customers are not letting some temporary dust or bulldozers stop them from coming to the restaurant. “We are a local gem,” he said, “modern Greek but with a twist that keeps them coming in.’ Indeed, some of the dishes on the menu are practically impossible for us to pronounce, and, yet, perhaps, the more letters in the name of the dish, the more succulent it is. Thank goodness the ingredients are listed after such specialties as “Melitzanosalata”, “Spanakopita” and “Saganaki,’ and the wait staff is patient and ultra-helpful in pronouncing and explaining.

Dinner guests are treated to an interesting complimentary appetizer of a creamy orange dip made of roasted red pepper, little lumps of feta cheese and a hint of jalapeno (enough for some zest but not enough to taste a burn) with a generous number of triangular slices of warm pita bread on the side for dipping. Other appetizers and “small plates” we sampled were the Spinach Pie, the Saganaki (fried Greek cheese), Greek Avgolemono Soup and the Grilled Octopus (be brave and try it and you’ll be hooked on their version forever.) The Spinach Pie is made with flaky layers of phyllo dough stuffed with their own special mix of baby spinach, leeks, scallions, and feta and mozzarella cheeses. Baked to perfection, you will find this healthy and tasty even if you are not a spinach lover.

Saganaki is a beloved traditional pan-seared Greek cheese appetizer which is splashed with Greek liquor or brandy, turned once till golden brown on both sides and served with a squeeze of a lemon. It has a nice crispy crust on the outside yet melty and delicious inside. Good luck pronouncing the special cheese used: Kefalograviera.

The Greek Avgolemono Soup is a classic combination of chicken, lemon and rice served nice and thick and hot. The Grilled Octopus is marinated in olive oil, fresh dill, onion and red wine vinegar, combined with salt, garlic, capers, parsley and lemon, common to so many Greek dishes, then charbroiled so the pieces are firm like lobster that promise to be enjoyed with the same gusto.

If you like Greek salad, this is the perfect place to have one as a healthy meal on its own for lunch or as a compliment to a Gyro (beef and lamb) or Souvlaki (pork) Pita Wrap. Of course this typical salad includes the standards of mixed greens, feta cheese, Greek olives, onion and fresh tomatoes but you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find a few delicious dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) added to Rafina’s all-star version.

Yanni suggested trying his top two popular entrees: fresh fish (“Whole Bronzini ‘Lavraki'”) and elegant lamb chops ( choose an order of 3 chops or 5.) He said, “our cuisine is sexy because Greeks give a lot of food and it’s always clean and fresh.” Indeed, Rafina’s grilled Bronzini, or European Seabass, is actually brought in fresh. It is flown from Greece to London to Florida where it is charbroiled and served whole, again prepared in a simple, healthy and delicious style, brushed lightly with the ever popular (EVOO) extra virgin olive oil and lemon glaze.

One can’t leave this marvelous visit to the Greek isles without experiencing the hand cut baby lamb chops that are marinated in fresh herbs (rosemary and oregano), garlic, pepper, and, of course, olive oil and zesty lemon before being charbroiled. Everyone understands that it is almost impossible to pass up biting off those last delicate morsels of meat close to the bone so common sense and manners fly out the window as rules of etiquette are understandably sure to be broken.

There is no better grand finale to this Mediterranean feast than having Rafina’s glorious Greek Ekmek Kataifi dessert, a mouthwatering pastry of shredded wheat with slivered toasted almonds, eggy custard with a dash of cognac and topped with sweet whipped cream. Equally divine is Rafina’s Baklava dessert, a pastry made of layers of phyllo dough filled with chopped nuts and held together with wonderfully sweet, sticky honey.

Don’t rush out yet! Why not linger over one last taste of Greece with a tiny cup of Greek Loumidis coffee. On a TV segment aired in April of 2013, Dr. Oz related a groundbreaking study that suggested that this particular rich, boiled Greek coffee may increase longevity and protect against heart disease. It’s a super-powered anti-oxidant in a cup that completes the ultra-healthful Mediterranean diet known worldwide to be one of the healthiest ways to eat.

Yanni described it well: whether you stop in for a signature Greek soup and salad, a Happy Hour cocktail and Small Plate, or a luxurious full dinner, Rafina is a perfect place for a first date, an anniversary or an everyday casual dine-out. Come and toast to your health with the joy and exuberance as they say it in Greece, “OPA”! www.rafinaonline.com