Orea Taverna's Greek Chic
There are two things you must get at Orea Taverna: the saganaki and the pyato souvlaki. Both are table spectacles of the kind that make you turn your head when another table orders it: over-the-top apotheoses of cheese and meat and thus also the antitheses of the restaurant's location in a particularly placid corner of placid Placentia, next to a residential lot where the loudest thing is the barking of a neighborhood dog heard behind the rustling trees and crickets.
The souvlaki, fist-sized cubes of charred meat threaded on a long sword with a wooden fork stuck perpendicularly at the middle, is held aloft at a 45-degree angle as it's carried by your server, as though he were a Spartan on the march to Athens. The saganaki is doused with a shot of ouzo, set ablaze so that the flames leap into the air, then quenched by lemon juice squeezed out of the fruit with an equal amount of flourish. The tableside pyrotechnics may be an American improvement for a dish named after the pan it's served in, but to get it without the show would be, well, strangely unpatriotic.
Besides, it's tradition here. Orea Taverna, for those who may not know its history, used to be Sophia's, a Placentia institution owned by the Ghosns since 1980. The family sold it in 2007, and it closed for good in 2010. That was when the Ghosns' son, Tony, swooped in and revived the place, updating it to a wine bar with Roman columns inset on walls so white it inspires memories of the bleached buildings in seaside Santorini. I'd never been to the old Sophia's, but I've been told the Ghosns served the saganaki just as their son does today. And I'm sure it was just as delicious then as it is now. The imminent threat of third-degree burns adds more zing to Orea's postcard-sized square of pan-fried sheep's-milk cheese than the lemon juice. It's already a bracingly salty, ultra-savory dish, with a seared outer shell to pierce into, pull apart and tuck into pita bread.
Judging by an old Sophia's menu I found, a lot of its dishes are still there, with the slightest of revisions. What used to be called "Poseidon's Peel & Eat Shrimp" is now just "Peel n' Eat Shrimp." The meal lost the divine tie-in, but it still comes steamed and steeped in what I suspect is Old Bay seasoning, accompanied by a house skordalia garlic sauce, a paste akin to Zankou's signature spread but much sweeter and tamer. The shrimp, as with all other dishes at Orea, are served meze-style, offered on plates the size of cereal bowls and meant for sharing—and much more fun if you do.
At Orea, there's no need to differentiate between the appetizers and the mains. The transition from the starter dips to the actual meze plates represents only a marginal uptick in quantity. The beveled, soft-as-sin slices of loukaniko sausage, for example, are in the appetizers section but are more satisfying than the main-course bowl of octopodi, tiny nubs of chewy steamed octopus overshadowed by so much iceberg lettuce it should've been listed as a salad. You're also better off opting for the scallops than the sautéed frog legs. Despite both being served in almost the same puddle of olive oil and garlic, the unseared, supple and practically melting steaks of the former seem like a rebuke of the latter, snow-white, dry, stringy and more-steamed-than-sautéed disappointments.
The hummus is so smooth it's almost soupy, served flanked by long planks of fried pita bread, and probably just as good as it was when the place was Sophia's. You could also get a pita sandwich here, filled with shaved petals of gyro or spears of the wonderful grilled chicken, a meat so yielding it disintegrates the moment it touches your lips. But eating it after you've just witnessed the theater of the saganaki seems as counterintuitive as settling for salad at a steakhouse. Get something more appropriate for the piped-in lounge music and servers who are so attentive they fold your napkins into origami shapes should you leave your table for even a moment. So order that souvlaki sword already—it's the right thing to do.
This review appeared in print as "Greek Chic: Orea Taverna is Tony Ghosn's update to his family's beloved Sophia's."
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