Be Greek for a Day: Oakland Greek Festival

 

This weekend is the Oakland Greek Festival, an annual festival held at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the Oakland Hills.   I am embarrassed to say that this is my first year attending even though it’s been held in my hometown for 43 years!   If you look to the East and into the hills from practically any vantage point in the Bay Area, you can locate the Mormon Temple.  The Greek Orthodox shares a space right below it.  So now that you know where it is, bring your cash so you can exchange it for tokens to spend at vendor stations selling food, drinks, desserts, or gifts. 

I love Greek lamb chops so knew I would be having some with a glass of red wine from Greece.  I was a bit shocked by the size of them, but then quickly realized I had plenty of room to try other items.  The lamb was good, but a tad salty.  It was good thing I had the piece of bread that came with it and my wine.
 My next course was grilled haloumi cheese.  The cheese is grilled and placed on grilled pita bread and topped with a slice of tomato and some type of vinaigrette dressing.  This was really tasty and much more impressive than the lamb chops.  
 I also picked up one of my favorite soups, avgolemono, a chicken rice soup with egg and lemon.    The soup is meant to be tart.   I always enjoy it because it’s comforting to me and I was not disappointed.  
 Now it was time to search out the desserts.  I had contemplated getting the loukoumades,  golden fried dough bathed in honey and cinnamon.  Instead, I was brought to the dessert room where they were making fresh Greek coffee. 

 It was a difficult decision but I was sold on the galaktobureko, milk custard with layered phyllo dough and honey.  I enjoyed the crispy texture of the phyllo against the soft custard.  It was very sweet and quite rich, so I packed my leftovers. I didn’t enjoy the coffee.  Even with the addition of more sugar, I never got it to the right balance.  As I got the bottom, I was left with a thick black residue.  I should have just had a regular cup of coffee.
 With some hits and misses, it is still a fun event learning about Greek culture.  It’s a great place to people watch as everyone is getting their Greek on with food, drinks, music, and dancing!  There is a lot to explore that if you can’t get it done in one weekend, there’s always next year.
The Oakland Greek Festival runs through today (11am-9pm).  Entry fee is $6 for adults and free for kids 12 and under. If you bring a can food donation, you can get $1 off.  If you bring a ticket stub from any A’s home game from April 28 through May 17, you can receive free admission.  I’m not sure what will be left, but it’s also free after 5pm today.  

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Celebrity Chef: Cat Cora

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Whenever I travel for work, I would alway pack my tennis shoes and gym clothes, but rarely end up pulling it out of the suitcase. This time while I was in Florida, I did pull it out because I had to get my Weight Watcher activity points in. I found that our hotel the Swan and Dolphin had a one mile loop walking trail. I could loop around three times and earn three activity points. It’s a good thing I did because that is how I discovered Kouzzina, Iron Chef Cat Cora’s restaurant located on the Boardwalk. I had to dine here just because she is the only female Iron Chef. The restaurant is open for dinner as well as breakfast. I tried both.

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Kouzzina means kitchen in Greek and serves Mediterranean food. Although I was excited to be having dinner here, I knew I was in Florida and wanted to play it safe. I would start with my favorite Greek soup, Avgolemono. To me, lemon and chicken is like peanut butter and jelly. They go well together. Chef Cora’s soup did not have the exact consistency or texture that I expected, but it was still good. It was a tad thicker, had a more pungent lemon flavor, and had orzo when I expected rice. I now realize that you can use rice or orzo to make this soup. The Asian in me likes the rice.

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My friend who enjoys Greek appetizers ordered the Kouzzina sampler as her entree. It came with lamb meatballs, shrimp skewers, marinated olives, spiced cashews, dolmas, hummus, and pita. The platter of items was very mediocre. My favorite thing was the spiced cashews.

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I continued to play it safe and ordered the wood-grilled rib eye steak which was topped with an herb salsa and came with broccolini and potatoes. This was great. I wiped off some of the herb salsa, but everything else was delicious and met my expectations.

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The one thing I noticed about Kouzzina was that they could work on their plating. Plating was a hot mess. I guess in Florida they care more about abundance than they do presentation.

I came back the next morning for breakfast with my colleague. We shared two items. One was the French toast baklava, which was grilled fig and anise country bread with honey, walnuts and cinnamon. It also came with a side of chicken sausage.

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The second item was the warm phyllo filled with semolina custard and cinnamon sugar.

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Chef Cat Cora proved she could do breakfast. These Greek influenced breakfast plates were well worth my second visit and three more loops around the walking trail.

Evvia: The Best Restaurant in Palo Alto

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Rumor has it that the best restaurant in Palo Alto is a Greek Restaurant in Downtown. It’s name is Evvia. I was in Palo Alto with my colleague last week attending a conference hosted by Stanford University. We were looking for a place to dine so I texted a friend of mine that lives in Palo Alto. As I waited for her to respond, I also went to yelp.com. It was clear we had to go to Evvia and when my friend returned my text, it reconfirmed that we had to try to get in. With the help of Open Table, I got a 8:30pm reservation. My colleague and I decided to attempt a walk-in around 6pm. The host offered us two seats at the bar if we wanted. We were happy with that option. John took care of several of us at the bar while still serving as bartender for the rest of the Evvia.

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We started with a half bottle of Chianti. It was really cute as the bottle was like it had just gotten chopped in half, short and stumpy. It was actually quite good. John gave us some bread to start with an amazing olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette. We shared an appetizer of Biselosalata which are English peas with feta cheese, cilantro, green onions, lemon, and olive oil. I was surprised by it because I didn’t expect something cold, but it was good.

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I had noticed rotisserie chicken turning in their oven when I had walked in. The menu described Kotopoulo as lemon-oregano rotisserie chicken with roasted spring onions and Evvia potatoes and that was what I ordered. It was tender and flavorful. The white meat was very juicy, cooked to perfection. It reminded me a lot of the chicken from Zuni. Mmmmm….

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My colleague ordered the Makaronia me Arni, which was braised lamb Ragu, roasted tomatoes, Greek olives, and tagliatelle pasta which she enjoyed very much. I had a small taste. The pasta was very light which made the lamb the featured part of the dish. I normally don’t like lamb, but thought the chunks of lamb were quite nice. Two gentlemen next to us both ordered the mesquite grilled lamb chops and I swear that when I go back to Evvia, that will be waiting for me. Just looking at it made my mouth water.

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We were quite full, but John convinced us to order the Galaktoboureko which is a traditional phyllo wrapped vanilla bean semolina custard with pistachio ice cream. But before dessert came out, John gave us each a complimentary glass of dessert wine. It was a Tokaji which he described was similar to a Sauternes. He even instructed us on how to drink it. He wanted to make sure we didn’t drink it all before the dessert came out. After eating a bite of dessert, we should have a sip before the flavor of the dessert completely leaves you. My colleague and I used his technique and this last course was amazing and words cannot do it justice.

Evvia definitely scored high in my book and I would agree that it is the best restaurant in Palo Alto!  Did I mention John is awesome?

For those that don’t know it, Evvia has a sister restaurant in San Francisco called Kokkari Estiatorio.