Taverna Cretekou

$$$$ ($15-$24)
With an inviting outdoor garden, this Greek restaurant offers large portions and plenty of hospitality.
Closed Mon Tue-Fri 11:30 am-2:30 pm
5-10pm Sat noon-10:30 pm Sun 11 am-3 pm
(Old Town Alexandria)
King Street (Blue and Yellow lines)

Editorial Review

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 25, 2006

The sign outside Taverna Cretekou on a balmy night tells me just what I want to hear: "The garden is open."

If there is a more inviting outdoor place to unwind over a meal in Old Town, I have yet to experience it. A grape arbor shades you, and trees are strung with tiny white lights. The patio has the air of a cocktail party, with one owner, Chris Papaloizou, clapping his hands along with the piped-in Greek music, and the other, his wife, Denise, accepting a buss on her cheek from a grateful patron. Only a grinch could resist the couple's charms.

Two of you could make a light meal of the appetizer sampler, a Greek tour with stopovers that include a crackling spinach pie, light whipped fish roe (taramasalata), white beans sharpened with minced onion and an unfortunately pasty dollop of yogurt. Any remaining white space on the plate gets filled in with dark olives and feta cheese. Periodically, a plume of flames stops conversation as yet another order of kasseri cheese is ignited with brandy and splashed with lemon before it is delivered, crisp and molten, to the table.

When a silver-haired waiter hears me debating which lamb dish to order, his description of the lamb shank with orzo persuades me. "It's just like what we used to have for Sunday dinner" in Greece, he shares. "The mothers would bring meat to be cooked in a communal oven, and the fathers would pick it up on their way home from the cafe." Alas, the shank I receive is big and tender but not particularly flavorful, and the pasta is slick with a faint tomato sauce. The combination smacks more of leftovers than Old World. And despite its glowing menu description, chicken breast cooked with mango and prunes is a bland piece of poultry that is best for its roasted potatoes. Lamb chops get cooked past the medium-rare I requested, but their honeyed carrots and soft green beans are very satisfying.

Come hungry. All of the food is doled out as if Trojans were being fed. A deep casserole is used to support shrimp and rice beneath a small brick of feta cheese; moistened with an onion-laced tomato sauce, the mound is easy to appreciate. And so are the simple desserts.

The couple next to me beams as the man signs the bill. "I'm coming back in July, and I'm asking for you again!" he informs his waiter, who seals the deal with a handshake. Can you get full on hospitality? Taverna Cretekou suggests it's possible.