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I never underestimate the appeal of insouciant service—nothing goes stale quicker than the tableside manners of overeager, blowbag waiters—but this guy’s borderline absurd. He recommends the fish of the day—Taverna Cretekou is known for its seafood, he says—but has no idea what that fish is. It takes him 15 minutes to find out that it’s red snapper. From there he stacks up faux pas like cord wood: He never makes eye contact. He never brings water. He brings my entree and my appetizer at the same time. He’s so aloof he might as well be off-duty. At one point the people at the table next to me ask, “Do you have any idea where that waiter went?”
Um, yes: He’s breaking plates and urging others to do the same. Now he’s dancing in front of the bouzouki player, raising his leg to slap his foot and bending his knees so low that his ass practically touches the ground. His dance gets more fiery and clap-filled as the music swells and others join: a kid, his mom, and later—only after my waiter drinks the woman half down with his eyes—her date.
In all, the guy leaves his customers hanging for a good half an hour; the people at the table next to me have been waiting at least that long just to get their check. But the waiter erases the customers’ frowns when he re-enters the dining room, sweaty and winded, the sash around his waist askew, with a tray full of Greek dessert wine, which he distributes to the throng of people who’ve been watching him at play. It’s a totally pro move; even the people who turn down his peace offering leave feeling as if the guy tried to include them in his private party. I, for one, haven’t had such shamelessly bad service since my friend invited me to his country club but didn’t tell me about the dress code. I’ve also never been so enamored by a waiter’s work. Where slicker restaurants program their staff with scripted banter, Taverna Cretekou’s a place where the employees are set loose to shoot from the hip and actually engage the people they serve.
The waiter’s act, however, isn’t totally improvised; he does some form of that same dance on most Thursdays, the night the restaurant stages live Greek music, and people have been busting plates at Cretekou (note to diners: the ones you break will likely show up on your check) since 1974. The restaurant evokes Greece so thoroughly that you’ll forget you’re parked on a colonial-era street in Old Town. What else could have inspired Cretekou’s vine-covered patio and cool dining room, complete with chalky white walls and stone floor, other than a fear of being cooked by the red-hot Aegean sun?
Cretekou’s finely rendered authenticity begins with the decor and the staff, but it’s driven home by the food. The menus, many of which are so stained and faded they seem to have been around as long as the restaurant, contain proof that Greek cuisine is not composed solely of gyros and kabobs; indeed, the bread baskets are filled with crusty wheat bread, not pita.
The offerings are always the same, save for a few daily specials (in winter, look for sausage made with pork, oranges, and fava beans), but many of the dishes are light and citrusy and seem to exist for the season. Some of the seafood is underburdened by ingredients to the point that I half expect to see meals being carried away by a light breeze. The night of the plate-breaking my snapper is simply broiled crisp and served whole, seasoned with nothing but the classic trifecta of olive oil, lemon, and oregano. (It’s also available grilled with fennel.) The baked cod is a touch dry, but I finish it anyway; the dill and mint scenting it keep luring me back for more. Even the more involved seafood dishes—the shrimp covered in spicy tomato sauce, say, or the squid braised in wine, onions, tomatoes, cinnamon, and clove—adhere to the precept that fresh flesh only needs to be complemented, not disguised.
Almost all of Cretekou’s waiters are mature men from the Greek islands—which helps explain why they’re not subservient; in Europe, waitering is not just a money gig, but a career. You could easily make a light meal out of salads and meze: My favorite thing on the menu is a fluffy mousse of caviar whipped with lemon and olive oil, the tzatziki is thick and garlicky, and in the salad my girlfriend orders as a meal, nutty grilled cheese plays brilliantly against peppery leaves of arugula. But the waiters are prone to pushing the hearty stuff. It’s hard to blame them: Cretekou’s versions of moussaka and pastitsio (think lasagna with bechamel instead of red sauce) are both quintessential, and with the exception of the shank, which is served to me stringy and bland, the kitchen does impressive things with lamb.
During lunch, a crotchety old waiter insists that I’ll be blown away by the braised lamb, and he’s right; the meat’s juicy with a delicious, slightly tart sauce of red wine, olives, and tomatoes. At one point, the waiter asks me whether I’m done. There’s a silent pause. “Sorry,” he says, turning away empty-handed. “Bad question.” I don’t need to say a thing: There’s still juice on my plate and bread in the basket.
People who measure the quality of a Greek restaurant by its baklava will be disappointed with Cretekou’s finishing game. The restaurant just plain can’t do dessert: The baklava tastes as though it were preserved, not flavored, with honey, and the kadaifi is so soggy it’s hard to tell if there’s even any pastry involved. But somehow, the staff makes the misfires excusable. The night my waiter goes AWOL I want to order dessert. When he brings me the free wine, I tell him so. He promises he’ll be back. When he arrives, he brings another glass of wine, hands it to me, and lifts his empty hand as if to offer up a toast. Then he winks and leaves without taking my order, clapping his hands and cheering on the band. Dessert doesn’t matter.
Taverna Cretekou, 818 King St., Alexandria, (703) 548-8688.
The new Levante’s downtown, a spinoff of the Bethesda branch, which itself was spun off a chain based in Austria, mines some of the same culinary terrain as Cretekou. The cuisine is eastern Mediterranean, so the menu includes its share of Greek dishes. But the restaurant’s hallmark is its pides, a Turkish-style pizza shaped like a deflated football. The one I order is basically just shrimp and dough. The rest of our food isn’t much better: The falafel is as dry and flavorless as the grilled shark that’s on special, although the rice bed under the latter is pocked creatively with currants. The front patio is nice, but we leave feeling ripped off: Thirty bucks a head isn’t astronomical until you consider that the highlight of the meal is the chocolates that come with the check.
Levante’s, 1320 19th St. NW, (202) 293-3244. —Brett Anderson
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