Island onto itself 

Avra's Greek spirit brings a welcome spark to Midtown's restaurant row

No one at my table wants to sit near Avra's strumming musicians. Are we a bunch of bah-humbuggers or what?

Midway up the stairs to the dining room, though, we all stop for a moment to give our ears over to a nifty, if surreal, aural trick: The thumping dance music from the downstairs bar trickles up and merges with the rhythms of the live maestros upstairs. It creates a hypnotic, world beat cocoon of sound. Greek trance. Dig it.

Upstairs, the hostess sits us right next to the two entertainers. They hammer out one tune after another that makes me recall watching Shirley Valentine and My Big Fat Greek Wedding too many times on HBO. Sure, we could ask for another spot, but on this particular night the room is half-full at best, and these guys -- so earnest in their renditions of Rembetika -- look a bit lonesome. We try to shed our Grinch-itis and succumb to the spirit.

Avra actually does strike a needed equilibrium for our Greek-deprived dining scene. It asks neither for the pricey-but-oh-so-worth-it investment of Buckhead's Kyma, nor for its patrons to boogie down with spangly belly dancers a la Taverna Plaka. The only time you'll hear "Opa!" ring through the restaurant is when staffers are lighting saganaki afire with ouzo -- and the aged kefalograviera cheese in particular deserves a yelp of joy.

Besides, this location could use a little Opa. Its last two incarnations, Salt and CAVU, attempted and failed to convincingly contribute to Midtown's growing throng of New American restaurants. The life force of feta, whole grilled fish and braised lamb lightens the lumbering converted house. Mind you, it in no way evokes a tavern, but the place feels more buoyant nonetheless. (Avra's owners also operate Mythos in Roswell and Sage Woodfire Tavern -- not to be confused with Sage in Decatur or Woodfire Grill on Cheshire Bridge Road -- in Alpharetta.)

You can plunge into dinner several ways here, depending on your budget and your appetite. Several groups I witness compose meals entirely of meze (appetizers). Request a pikilia plate of cold spreads while you peruse the wine selection and decide on other dishes. It's a standard mishmash of dips, many with wonderfully meandering names like melitzanosalata (smoked eggplant salad that could use more brightening notes) and revithosalata (hummus, basically).

The kitchen nails its tzatziki, the yogurt condiment served alongside several other meze. Its thick, herbal creaminess on a piece of freshly warmed pita is the sustaining Greek equivalent to salty, cold butter slowly melting into a crusty French roll.

Grilled octopus is pliant and smoky in all the right ways. A brick of fava bean cake that comes alongside is roughly the color of the Wicked Witch of the West's skin. It takes a moment to get used to, but the smooth texture grows on you. Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) achieve that nice interplay between the astringent leaves and the cushy, sweet rice filling.

This sort of noshing probably puts you in the mind for spanakopita. Don't go there. The spinach mixture inside the greasy casing could hardly be blander. Order another round of salty, tipsy saganaki instead.

A word on wine: The selections on Avra's all-Greek list have been astutely chosen for their quaffable natures. Greek Chardonnays sport the same oaky overtones as their American counterparts, though the structure is often less viscous, more refreshing. Consider, too, a glass of white made from the Roditis grape. It has a citrusy effervescence similar to Pinot Blanc.

Of course, we've officially hit winter weather, so reds are the draw of the moment: Go with a Xinomavro. The varietal produces an almost inky purple wine, yet the body and flavor is more in line with a Pinot Noir and makes a fine all-purpose choice to match both seafood and lamb entrees.

I like that Avra offers wholly affordable traditional main courses as well as powerhouse fish offerings that summon unavoidable comparisons to Kyma. I just wish the less expensive offerings were executed with a bit more finesse. The moussaka has an appealing fluffiness, but the seasonings have little nuance: It tastes like plain ol' ground beef with a blanket of tame béchamel on top.

And the baked eggplant is missing the mush factor. Eggplant needs to be soulfully, slowly disintegrated into a molten blob that then acts as a vessel for intriguing, juxtaposing flavorings. Avra's eggplant mush still has bite, and its acidic nature competes with underwhelming additions of tomatoes, pine nuts and garlic.

If you want to go upscale with grilled fish, quiz your server thoroughly. (This will not require much prodding; the mostly male staff is chatty and lighthearted.) Twice I tried the fish specials of the day, and my experiences contrasted vastly. Branzino, a small variety of sea bass, was haphazardly boned tableside and full of skeletal needles, which detracted from the moist, medium-firm flesh.

Another visit, lavraki was the featured fish. The server had a tough time describing the fish, which, as I understand it, is the same thing as loup de mer (or "wolf of the sea.") My intrepid tablemate asked to look at the lavraki before it was cooked, and though its eyes were worrisomely cloudy -- a sign that it could have some age on it -- it was the one transcendental moment I've had eating here. Glossed with a lemon-olive oil emulsion, the fish was sweet and supple and the large bones easy to avoid. It was also $38 for that solitary, 2-and-a-half pound sucker.

Next time, I think I'll join the crowd and happily content myself with Avra's jubilant, accessibly priced feast of meze. And sit downstairs to avoid feeling like a musical malcontent.


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