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Our town, for all its glories, does have its little shortages here and there. We are, in particular, not as rich as some of the bigger cities in the "littles" and "towns" that give those great metropolises their distinctive scents of ethnic potpourri. Oh, we do have a Chinatown and a Japantown, and our Little Italy can be found living under a pseudonym in North Beach. There's even a remnant of a French quartier on lower Nob Hill, along a run of Bush Street that includes the Alliance Française, the French consulate, and the Église Notre Dame des Victoires. But for all San Francisco's affinity for the Mediterranean, many of the Mediterranean cultures are virtually invisible here. I was reminded, after visiting Chicago recently, that we have not only no Greektown but hardly any Greek restaurants, hardly any place where your cheese can be set on fire before your eyes with a cry of "Opa!"
Flaming cheese (not to be confused with the Flaming Homer) is known by the Greeks as saganaki, and it is on the menu at Myconos, a Polk Street stalwart that has survived since the 1970s and preserves an authentic sense of Greek rusticity, as such latecomers as Kokkari and Mezes do not. Greece, we should remember, is one of the poorest countries in Europe; it is quite near both Africa and the Middle East and was ruled rather harshly for several centuries by the Ottoman Turks. (One enduring monument to the struggle against the Turkish occupation is the semiruined Parthenon in Athens, which had been built in the golden age of Pericles in the fifth century BCE and stood intact for two millennia, until, in the 17th century, the occupiers turned it into a munitions dump, which then exploded.) If we ever start wondering why the argument between Christianity and Islam is so bitter, we can get much of our answer simply by considering the Greek case.
Fortunately, everybody likes saganaki, with the possible exception of the American Heart Association. ("I wish they'd never invented fried cheese!" Marge Simpson says in a fantasy graveside scene in which Homer has died of obesity and is being buried in a piano crate lowered by a crane. These are her last words, for the crane then gives way and the crate crushes everyone.) Myconos's version ($9.95) isn't detonated tableside, but it does reach the table still spitting blue flames, and it does develop a wonderful golden crust that contrasts nicely with the cheese's natural citrusy (and not too salty) tang.
Saganaki is probably about as good for you as dessert, so after your sinful beginning, you will be relieved to find that the rest of the menu is dotted with salads, legume dishes, and vegetarian choices. We found the hummus ($4.95) to be nonMiddle Eastern despite the accompanying warm pita bread; the chickpea puree was coarse rather than peanut-butter smooth and seemed not to have been mixed with tahini, the sesame seed paste. The dominant flavors, instead, were those of lemon and garlic.
The restaurant's version of a Greek salad mixed greens tossed with roma tomato coins, crumblings of feta cheese, and onion slivers turns up beside many of the main courses. Among these is a rather splendid pastitsio ($11.95), a kind of Greek lasagna that combines layers of tubular pasta, seasoned ground beef, and béchamel cheese sauce into a shape that resembles a large square hamburger (with the béchamel cheese sauce looking like the top half of the bun). The wind blows from the east across the pastitsio, bringing the scent of nutmeg, perfume of the Middle East and even points beyond. This is not surprising; as Elson M. Haas, MD, instructs us in Staying Healthy with Nutrition (Celestial Arts/Ten Speed, $39.95), "the Middle Eastern nations consume a variant of the Indian diet," and Greece is on the fringes of the Middle East.
Novices, neophytes, and the inattentive might be forgiven, in fact, if they mistook the Greek condiment tzatziki a sauce of yogurt, shredded cucumber, garlic, and onion for the Indian condiment raita, a sauce of yogurt and cucumber. Tzatziki is the salsa of Greek cooking and has a way of turning up everywhere, but we found it only as an accompaniment to garides souvlaki ($15.95), two brochettes of grilled shrimp plated with roasted potatoes and salad.
I was not impressed with the falafel ($5.95 at lunch), despite the massiveness of the plate: five Titleist-size balls arrayed on a carpet of pita and topped with a blob of hummus that looked like lumpy gravy. The falafel balls were unwarm and undersalted; worse, they recurred on the vegetarian platter, which offered (in addition to the falafel and in place of the cottage potatoes) a dolma a torpedo of seasoned rice swaddled in grape leaves and a round of spanikopita, the phyllo pie stuffed with spinach and cheese. These teaser items were tasty enough to distinguish themselves from the falafel but not substantial enough to make up for it.
The wine list is brief but does include a variety of Greek bottlings both red and white, and these tend to be quite good value. Although the Greeks have been making wine since time out of mind, the country's modern wine industry had fallen into disrepair until recently and was known mostly for retsina, whose turpentine quality can be overwhelming. There is also a selection of Greek beers, including a lovely golden lager from Hillas. After a few of these, even Homer might nod. *
Mon.Thurs., noon10 p.m.; Fri., noon11 p.m.; Sat. 111 p.m.; Sun., 110 p.m.
1431 Polk, SF
Beer and wine
Can get loud