No more than a dozen diners fill the rooms of Veranda Greek Taverna, and yet somehow this meandering space with its mottled concrete floors, yellowish lighting and dark furnishings doesn’t feel empty. It feels alive. A few parties populate the dining room, patio and lounge areas, and occasionally a curtain opens to a back room where a poker league gathers around a spotlit table.
Waitresses congregate by the potted plants at the entrance foyer, conversing in Russian. Two husky-voiced women edge closer to two young men at one corner of the bar, and soon the bartender is popping Mythos beers for the party.
Into this scene walks an a cappella men’s choir. They briefly consult the manager, break into a rendition of “Yesterday” and leave.
“What was that about?” I ask the bartender.
“No idea,” he laughs. “They just asked if they could use the space to rehearse.” The bartender has just come to our corner of the bar with our saganaki ($7) — a square of pan-fried kefalograviera cheese that he douses with a mixture of ouzo and 151-proof rum and sets aflame with a grill lighter. “Opa!” he says with a wink.
The funny thing is, no one here is Greek. Not the service staff, which is mostly Eastern European, nor in the kitchen, where Spanish is the language of choice. Owner Pete Pukish isn’t even of Greek descent, though he brings in a Greek consultant. A veteran of Taverna Plaka intown, he opened Veranda in Roswell 2½ years ago with a staff made largely of former employees of that restaurant. But over the years he began attracting an international crowd more interested in the Eastern European -Mediterranean vibe than the food per se. He is the first to admit that Veranda is less a standard Greek restaurant these days than “a place to come, sit, relax and slow down.”
If you enjoy Veranda for its Euro-chill atmosphere, you will find a way to make peace with and enjoy the deracinated Greek menu. Depending on how you order, how much you spend and how well staffed the kitchen is during your visit, you will find the meal to be more hits than misses, or vice versa.
I best like eating at the bar, where the international drinks lineup holds plenty of intrigue. Signature martinis feature lemon and ouzo, or cucumber and melon. Beers range from Mythos to Russian Baltika ales in oversized bottles. When I ask the manager, Olga, to recommend a Greek white wine, she lines up three tasting glasses. She and I both agree the Boutari Moschofilero ($10 a glass) was the best of these three simple wines, with a smell like Meyer lemons and a nice finish. It reminds me a little of pinot grigio.
I also love the gratis appetizer (borrowed from the Plaka menu) that comes with each meal — a mortar holding chickpeas, garlic and oil that you grind into hummus and spread on wedges of warm pita.
While that gooey saganaki cheese is impossible to resist, I had no problems pushing aside an appetizer of grilled octopus ($9.95) that is as chewy as a cold slab of Bazooka. Much better is the mini Kleftiko ($9.95) — a crisp phyllo bundle enrobing tender chunks of lamb stew.
While I love the sound of a vegetarian moussaka ($13.95), it comes as a reheated brick of zucchini, eggplant and potato topped with an inch-thick layer of stiff béchamel that reminds me of insulation material.
Better are grilled lamb chops ($23.95), well marinated and served four to the order, that come with crisp-creamy potato croquettes and green beans dripping with garlic and oil. I don’t mind their sloppy subservience at all; soulful, limp beans are better than squeaky, flavorless ones in my book.
Still, if Veranda is going to work for me, it’s not as a place where I spend $24 on an entree. So I decide to come back on Sunday for “tapas day,” where most dishes are $5 apiece. (Funny the restaurant uses the word “tapas” rather than the nearly synonymous Greek word “meze.”)
Alas, I think we catch the restaurant understaffed as it takes far too long for our few small plates to arrive. Every time the patio door squeaks open we turn around expectantly, only to find our empty-handed waitress bringing yet more iced tea.
What eventually arrives is a huge mixed bag. Lamb souvlaki skewers ($5), served with green beans and sliced potatoes, bring four juicy hunks of meat threaded with onions and peppers — quite the steal for the price. A horiataki salad ($5) combines half-moon cucumbers, ripe tomato wedges and pitted Kalamata olives in a feta-flecked dressing. Just right.
But unseasoned fried calamari ($5) had only a damp tomato sauce to enliven it (where’s the lemon and salt?). The fibrous house grape leaves ($5) wrap unseasoned white rice. Most disappointing of all: a $12 platter of the house spreads brings stiff little scoops of this and dribbles of that in a jungle of wilting mixed greens. The flaccid pita wedges don’t have that grill-crisped texture.
So, this — afternoon tapas on the patio — is not the time to appreciate Veranda Greek Taverna. Better to go at night when the twinkly strings of lights are turned on, and a multinational crowd comes to drink, flirt, play poker and smoke from (not-Greek-at-all) hookahs. Pukish says the menu will eventually evolve in a more pan-Mediterranean direction. There will be pasta when I next visit, and I bet it will taste just right with a Greek salad and a Russian beer.VERANDA GREEK TAVERNA