APPETITE West Portal has long warmed my heart. Maybe it's the removed setting, tucked in the shadow of Twin Peaks where T line ends and the M emerges. Or it's a sense of stepping back in time to a 1970s San Francisco, a sleepy area unfazed by trends and hipsterization. It's a family neighborhood, residential and small town in feel — and like any corner of our city, has its food gems, like old school blue cheese buffalo burgers at charmingly dated Bulls Head, or vividly fresh sandwiches and salads at the original location of Market and Rye.
For the past couple months, West Portal residents have been flocking to Orexi, which has quickly made a name for itself and is bustling even on weeknights. It's Greek... sadly a rarity in the Bay Area despite a plethora of Mediterranean eateries. The upscale Kokkari has long been the Greek queen of San Francisco (sister restaurant Evvia rules Palo Alto) and it has no equal. Downtown's Ayola also offers Greek favorites, but on the cheaper side. Yet I find myself longing for restaurants like Taverna Kyclades in Astoria, Queens, a mid-range, family-style seafood Greek restaurant typical of New York City's famed Greek neighborhood, convivial with families, rounds of crisp, Greek white wines, and platters of octopus and grilled fish.
Orexi is a step in the right direction — a comfortable, mid-range neighborhood Greek restaurant using quality ingredients. Owners John and Effie Loufas have created an approachable dining experience — I ate here a couple weeks after opening, returning again one month later to the same waiter who remembered a wine I ordered the month before and a busser who recalled the shirt my husband was wearing last visit. No wonder they're securing repeat diners.
The understated dining room is chic rather than rustic, warm with a honeycomb-like wall hanging and mirrors reflecting the room's glow. As for the food, first the bad news: grilled octopus ($11 — there's also an octopus salad for $12.50), typically a favorite of mine, is a bit rubbery over arugula, while gigantes ($7) baked white beans, suffer from blandness but for a dousing of appropriately sweet-savory tomato sauce and crumbled feta on top.
My appetite (the meaning of the Greek word "orexi") is satiated in unexpected places. House pita bread arrives humbly from the oven, belying its addictive nature, gratifying with small scoops of house dips ($6 each), my favorite being a salty taramosalata, a creamy, fish roe spread laden with olive oil and lemon. The eggplant dip, melitzanosalata, is a balanced expression of the vegetable's smoky notes, while I wish tyrokafteri, a spicy feta spread dotted with jalapeno, was actually spicy.
Zucchini fritters ($7) with tzatziki (a tangy cucumber yoghurt dip) are a solid starter. Lamb riblets ($9) or lamb carpaccio ($10.75) step it up in tenderness and meaty (not gamey) flavor. In terms of entrees, I'm smitten with homey moussaka ($17). Layers of ground lamb and beef meld with allspice and stewed eggplant under creamy bechamel sauce, reminiscent of the melty, homemade lasagna of my childhood. Simple and also enticing, the "signature" rotisserie chicken ($17) is a generous half-bird (free range, thank you very much), over greens and unremarkable potatoes, marinated in lemon, oil, and spices, tender inside, with slightly crispy, oregano-laced skin.
In the mix with zippy Greek whites and California wines, the wine list holds a rare treat (and I always head straight for the unusual): retsina. Retsina ($6 a glass at Orexi) is a thousands year old Greek tradition of white or rose wine aromatized with pine resin (used to seal ancient wine vessels from excess oxygen). As you might imagine, pine resin gives the wine a foresty flavor, which some describe as turpentine or sap: "Not for everyone," our waiter clarifies. Its herbal green notes work beautifully with the roasted chicken.