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Originally published Friday, July 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant review

Plaka Estiatorio serves up some real Greek delights

Restaurant Review: Plaka Estiatorio, a family-friendly Greek restaurant in Ballard, exudes casual Mediterranean warmth, with a midday menu leaning toward gyros, falafel and souvlaki, and dinner features small plates (mezedes) and substantial entrees culled from the Mandapat-Tziotis family recipe files. 2.5-star review by Providence Cicero.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample dinner menu

Tyropita $7
Marouli salata $8
Octopodi $9
Papousakia $14
Brizoles $16

Plaka Estiatorio2.5 stars

Greek

5407 20th Ave. N.W., Seattle

206-829-8934

www.plakaballard.com

Reservations: Accepted.

Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays.

Prices: $$ /$$$ (Lunch $6.95-$11.95; dinner small plates $5-9, large plates $10-$25.)

Drinks: Greek wines and beers.

Parking: On street.

Sound: Boisterous.

Who should go: A congenial spot for a family dinner, an evening with friends or a lunchtime gyro.

Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard.

Access: No obstacles to access.

Plaka Estiatorio is quite a family affair. While waiting for your mezedes to arrive, you could play a game: Match the faces in the framed snapshots that cover the restaurant's rough stucco walls to those of the staff, all of whom seem to be related in one way or another to owners Tony Mandapat, his wife, Ourania, and her parents, Katina and Yiannis Tziotis, head chef and host, respectively.

Ourania's brother, Dometios, and cousin, Demetri, wait tables. Many relatives who don't actually work here come by to visit and, of course, to eat. You can tell which one is the "family table" by all the hugging going on.

Since it opened in April, Plaka also seems to have become the dinner table of choice for many Ballard families. It looked like a preschool-parent night one evening (one mom was even nursing, putting a new spin on BYOB). The easygoing, indulgent waitstaff take it all in stride, and the ambient noise level is loud enough to mask all but the most insistent infant wail.

This ebullient Greek restaurant is so carefully set-designed to convey casual Mediterranean warmth, you could stage a production of "Mamma Mia!" here. Corinthian columns flank the front entrance. Patches of exposed brick create the impression of age. Big baskets of fresh produce bank the open kitchen, suggesting a market stall.

I found the kitchen less sure-footed in its execution of what the menu promises is "authentic Greek food," but there were some triumphs. Papousakia, a lush casserole of eggplant and minced lamb blanketed in béchamel, was fragrant with nutmeg and grated cheese, and so compelling I ate far more than I intended.

Ditto the homey tomato- and lamb-studded baked orzo, and brizoles — two fat, juicy pork rib chops supported by meltingly soft braised fennel. The menu said pan-seared, but those cross-hatched chops, rubbed with lemon and oregano, had benefited from some grill time.

Based on those and the souvlaki skewers, I'd be willing to bet the grilled lamb chops are terrific. But I opted for braised lamb, a frequent special. Supple slices cut from the leg lay over green beans, zucchini and carrots tartly accented with pickled grape leaves — a wonderful ensemble, but one that arrived lukewarm.

That same night, the roasted lemon potatoes that escort everything, even macaroni, had the tired look and crumbly texture of food held too long or reheated once too often. Yet on another night, they were firm and fabulous.

An impressive Copper River sockeye fillet, from the special board, came dusted with herbs and dotted with capers and sweet onions. The fish was hot, but its accompaniments — somewhat mushy stuffed grape leaves and skordalia, a smooth mash of garlic, potato and olive oil — were cool, which tempered my enthusiasm for the dish.

Skordalia is among the array of lively Greek dips served with pita (ask for whole wheat, not the puffy Angel pita). It also injected some life into the fried smelts, which on their own were limp and dull. Like the Greek fries, they needed salt.

Happily, a pepper mill and sea salt are on each table. I used both to the betterment of a wan avgolemono soup and a gorgeous plate of beets and their greens marinated in oil and vinegar. Even the Marouli salad, lemon-dressed romaine, radish and scallions lavished with mint, oregano and fennel fronds, improved with additional seasoning.

I salt-and-peppered the petite Greek salad at lunch, too. It was delightfully crisp and crowned with tender, lightly charred octopus, though you can add souvlaki, falafel or gyro meat as well. Souvlaki is on the dinner menu, but falafel and gyro meat are offered only at lunch. The Plaka gyro, packed with pungent shards of lamb and veal, is outstanding.

Baklava and sometimes galaktoboureko are among the desserts. Neither was very appealing; the phyllo was tough and the custard filling in the latter was grainy. But even that didn't dent my dining pleasure. I left with a full tummy, sent off amid waves and a chorus of goodbyes. The hugs were implied.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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