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Forget about the Olympics! Chow at Christakis

Photo by Tenaya HillsWatching the Olympics? I sure as hell ain't, although not for the reasons you may suspect. I actually love the billion-dollar quadrennial spectacle: NBC's weepy human-interest profiles, opening and closing ceremonies so garish they would make Dionysius blush, even male synchronized diving. See, the foofaraw surrounding the Games conjures up childhood memories of a time when an Olympiad represented all that was just and right with summer—namely because I parked myself in front of the television for hours with no worries about work or school.

But those days are gone forever, extinguished like the dreams of Greek sprinter and—now—alleged doper, Costas Kenteris. Responsibilities began chipping away at my Olympic experience four summers ago. This time around? I saw a bit of the United States' basketball squad's sloppy victory against Greece on Aug. 17—and that's it. My schedule is so hectic nowadays I can't even make time for the late-night Bob Costas summaries that functioned as telegenic lullabies during my formative years. These Athens Games are the first Olympics of my adult life, a development that has put me in a rather foul mood. Never mind the aging thing—I want team handball!

To mitigate my melancholy, I'm finding myself dining more often than usual at Christakis Greek Cuisine, a gem of a Greek diner squeezed inside a Tustin shopping plaza. Unlike most county Greek restaurants, Christakis isn't about darkness and greasy grape leaves. It's elegant, aspiring for a Hellenic re-creation that draws more from antiquity than the smog-choked, modern Athens or the plate-breaking dervishes of so many other Greek taverns. There's a trickling fountain in the middle of the cozy dining room, like something the British Museum would've pilfered along with the Elgin Marbles. Outside is a courtyard that assists in winning your dinner companion's heart as ably as a Neruda stanza. The color scheme is a variation of the blue-and-white Greek flag and appears on the walls, chairs and dinnerware. And soothing Grecian landscape paintings by local artists hang from the walls—they're for sale, although at an average of $1,100 apiece, I don't think even Croesus himself would submit a bid.

Christakis' beautiful setting separates the eatery from its local Greek brothers-in-grub, but what truly catapults the place into Orange County's high-class dining strata are the platters of its late eponymous founder, Joanne Christakis Wallace. All meals (except pasta dishes) come with soup or salad, and for once, deciding between these most expected of appetizers actually requires deliberation. Although the salad itself is rudimentary—a harvest of onions, roughage, tomatoes and olives—the colorful mound is baptized in a pink garlic dressing studded with feta cheese that will wrinkle your nose with its pungent zing. On another pleasure level is the avgolemono (egg-lemon) soup. This potage is the finest starter that's ever passed over my tongue, a chilled, milky-yellow broth thick with plump rice grains and chicken chunks, bracingly sour because of the lemon juice, hearty with whipped egg whites. What I have gathered from the Olympics this time around is that it's broiling in Athens, so I fancy myself a dehydrated tourist rejuvenating himself with some avgolemono when slurping the stuff down.

You'll find the standards of Greek restaurants at Christakis as well: bitter spanakopita spinach pies, starchy moussaka casseroles, lamb prepared in more ways than there are actual lamb cuts and a thorough selection of seafood. More impressive is an array of pasta dishes that suggests an Italian influence at some point in Christakis' seven-year existence. Pastitsio is the Greek take on lasagna: creamy squares studded with lamb bits, each pastitsio hefty enough to add a couple of notches to your belt. Makaronada, meanwhile, is the mac and cheese of the Aegean, with long pasta tubes baked in butter then sprinkled with mizithra cheese until it looks like the Rockies after a snow flurry.

The best pasta, however, is a nameless, tiny, diamond-shaped joy soaked in marinara sauce and always served alongside a luscious lamb shank. It tastes remarkably similar to the pasta my mom forced upon me as a toddler—hell, still does. I always grimace at this pasta when mami prepares it, but I order it almost every other visit at Christakis. It's a bit bland but blesses me with a warm, filling comfort, a consolation for the loves passed by and those in the future who might do the same. Oh, Janet Evans, where have you gone?

Christakis Greek Cuisine, 13011 Newport Ave., Tustin, (714) 731-1179. Open daily, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $20-$50, food only. All major credit cards accepted.
 
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