A treasure worth the trip to Ashburn
By Candy Sagon
Sunday, November 25, 2012
Konstantinos Drosos has been cooking for more than 40 years -- first in Greece, then in the District and now in Northern Virginia. He sold his last Greek restaurant, which was in an office park in Chantilly, about 10 years ago.
He took a break for about 11 years, but then the restaurant biz beckoned again.
Eight months ago, Drosos and his wife, Ekaterina, and their two adult children opened Opa Mezze Grill in one of those ubiquitous strip shopping centers in booming Ashburn. It’s a treasure worth the trip.
The place is nothing fancy, as far as the decor goes. Cheery bright blue and white walls, simple dark wooden tables that can handle about 50 people, framed photos of Greece and a flat-screen TV by the register in back, silently broadcasting the day’s game.
But you can taste all of Drosos’s experience and pride in whatever you choose from the menu.
I even brought tough critics to make sure I was right: Close friends who are Greek and fabulous cooks themselves came one night and helped us try just about everything on the menu.
After nearly two hours, we could only find one thing to nitpick about: the pork.
The problem with the pork is a common one with a lot of American pork -- it’s so low in fat that it’s hard to cook it to a safe temperature without losing juiciness. So the Brizola Hirini, or grilled pork chops on the bone, looked great but were too chewy and dry. (Although the lemony Greek potato chunks that accompanied them were perfect.)
And the marinated pork in the Opa gyro that my husband and I tried on another visit were also on the dry side. But the pork comes as they do it in Greece, wrapped up in a warm pita with fresh tomatoes and onions, slender, hand-cut french fries and tangy tzatziki sauce, so any dry bits are smothered in lots of other good stuff.
Besides, you can always order the Chicago gyro instead, which is just like the Opa but with tender shavings of mixed lamb and beef, instead of pork, from the vertical spit.
On the mezze side of the menu, the usual dips and appetizers are there, and taste fresh and light.
The dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaf rolls) come warm with loosely packed ground beef filling and topped with a creamy lemon sauce. The melitzanosalata -- roasted eggplant dip, the Greek version of its better known Lebanese cousin, baba ghanoush -- has an airy consistency and a mild, sweet eggplant flavor. And don’t miss the tyrokafteri, a sultry, whipped feta cheese and hot pepper dip that packs a satisfying flick of heat.
For cephalopod fans, you have two options: demure little calamari rings that are batter-dipped, fried and served with a horseradish sauce (which could have used a little more horseradish); or octopus that is roughly cut, chargrilled and then bathed in olive oil, oregano, lemon juice and garlic. The calamari is perfectly fine, but the octopus is outstanding. Not surprisingly, Drosos says it has become one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
Pastitsio is the Greek version of lasagna: a layering of pasta (tube-shaped, not sheets), ground beef, and a velvety bechamel sauce that forms a creamy custard layer on top. It’s Greek comfort food, and Drosos’s version is sublime. My Greek friend Sula, who has made this dish many times, remarked on the extra-high top layer. “Untraditional, but really good. And rich,” she said.
She also approved of the moussaka, a similarly layered dish but with eggplant. “See, he puts potato slices on the bottom the way you’re supposed to do it,” she noted.
Drosos’s deft touch shines in the lamb entrees on his menu. Hearty lamb kapama is a fork-tender, on-the-bone shank in a white wine sauce with tomatoes and sauteed onions on a bed of orzo. He browns the lamb and onions first, then adds the sauce spiced with a little cinnamon and nutmeg and bakes it for two hours “to make sure it is tender,” he said.
He takes even more time to make the lamb chops. He uses thin shoulder chops, which he marinates for a day in the holy Greek quartet of seasoning -- lemon, garlic, oregano and olive oil -- then grills them. Three juicy chops come with five potato wedges, all redolent of lemon and garlic and greatness.
We also loved the lamb kebab for the same reason: The long-marinated lamb chunks are superior to the often tough, under-seasoned variety you get at many other places. Ditto for the tender, herb-flecked chicken kebab, which comes with rice.
There are three desserts on the menu, and, Drosos says proudly, he makes all of them. The baklava, dripping in honey sauce, could be a little crispier, but the galaktoboureko -- a phyllo-wrapped rectangle filled with custard -- is a nice balance of flaky dough, honey syrup and fluffy custard filling with a refreshing hint of lemon for contrast.
Drosos is also proud of his wine list, which features all Greek wines “and even Greek beer.”
Service at Opa is brisk and helpful, especially if you get Ekaterina as your server. I've never seen more than two waitresses working at a time during the week, but the Drososes' daughter and son say they often fill in on weekend nights when things get busy. Which, considering how good the food is, deserves to happen every night.