Kentro is unlike any Greek restaurant I've ever been to: There are no Hellenic-styled fonts or idyllic pictures of seaside Santorini. Walking in, you'd swear it was a newfangled yuppie gastropub or some sort of uppity wine bar. If it weren't for the small vestibule stocked with Greek goods and candy bars, the place could pass for an extra-sleek Corner Bakery. It's a sit-yourself establishment, with silverware stored in tableside caddies and tap water offered in bottles. Orders are placed and paid for at the counter. An immense blackboard on a wall is crammed with multisyllabic words you've no hope of pronouncing properly, such as melitzanosalata, a dip with the same DNA as babaganoush that takes all that's good and sweet about an eggplant and concentrates it in a warm, garlic-intoned mush dribbled with extra-virgin olive oil and a smattering of parsley. When you take your numbered placard to scope out a table, you might just find that one of its clean-cut servers is already holding the dip you ordered, ready to serve it to you even before you've decided where to sit.
Kentro's kitchen is like this. The chefs are quicker with their food than Zeus is with his lightning bolts; they're able to belt out a dish faster than a McDonald's crew member can put fries into a paper sleeve. And when you taste the dip and the other dishes that arrive in quick succession, you realize the fast-food efficiency seems at odds with the quality of the prep and presentation.
I did not expect the grilled octopus to be ready so quickly, yet there it was, round coins of thickly cut tentacles fuming steam and shiny with latholemono, an all-purpose garlic/olive oil/lemon juice sauce of the chefs' own making. This was a starter plate that I would've gladly waited another 15 minutes for. It came complete with thin-sliced pickled carrots and pieces of crusty bread I used to construct little octopus finger sandwiches.
Kentro Greek Kitchen, www.kentrogreekkitchen.com. Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $16-$40. Beer and wine.
When the mezzedaki sampler platter arrived, I finally had to take stock of where I was—across from the Fullerton Transportation Center, inside a building that a few years ago would've probably seen a Subway or a Quizno's franchise at this spot, not a modern Greek restaurant that puts out perfectly grilled lamb chops gilded in bitter char and glistening in its own melted fat, or the beveled slices of sour loukaniko sausages, or the sticks of crumbly kefalotiri cheese, or the homemade tzatziki that does double duty as dip for the bread and sauce for the lamb.
I saw other customers leading friends in through the doors, excited at sharing their discovery. "This one's a good one," they'd say, pointing at something on the blackboard. Most newcomers start with the pitas, so massively fattened with meat they won't fit the circumference of any mortal-sized mouths. When my flatbread arrived—a crispy, oblong thin-crusted pizza topped with sliced potatoes, splotches of blubbery goat cheese, tomatoes and arugula—I got drooling stares from the people at the next table. "Ooh, we need to try that next time," one of them whispered.
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If there were a restaurant that rewarded those who go beyond the gyros, this is it. The taramosalata is one of the more advanced flavors offered; made of carp roe, it's a fishy, overwhelming salt-lick of a paste you'll initially apply sparingly on bread, but then subsequently slather on everything as soon as you've warmed up to its charms. Full entrées include a char-flecked pork souvlaki with wild rice, a bigger plate featuring those superlative lamb chops, a belly-stretching mousaka, a few vegetarian options, a steak, a roasted half-chicken and two fish dishes. The simple pan-fried filet of seabass, with crispy edges, is called psari tiganito and paired with an excellent roasted-corn side dish the Greeks call kalamboki.
Those who dare can opt to substitute the corn with horta, bitter dandelion greens wilted in olive oil and soured by lots of lemon juice. Enduring its tannic astringency will remind you that you don't eat nearly as much spinach as you should. It's one of those obviously healthy Mediterranean staples that tips your nutritional karmic balance so much to the good you don't hesitate in ordering the loukoumades for dessert. A good thing, too: these puffy, deep-fried-to-crunchy beignets are at least four times as decadent as the Cajun version, soaked in sticky honey and eaten with ice cream. Thankfully, Kentro's staff will wait until you've finished the main courses before bringing it out . . . although I'm sure it can be produced faster than you can say loukoumades.
This review appeared in print as "Get Yourself to the Greek: Fullerton's Kentro Greek Kitchen is lightning-quick, modern and delicious."