What does a chef do after he has trained at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and worked under haute cuisine celebrities such as Daniel Boulud in New York and Wolfgang Puck in Beverly Hills?
If your name is Yianni Koufodontis, then you go back to your roots and open a restaurant spotlighting the cuisine closest to your heart — in this case, Mediterranean. Thus was born The Olive Pit Fresh Mediterranean Grill, first in Brea and then Huntington Beach.
This restaurant in a strip mall at the northern edge of Surf City has an outdoor patio, a floor to ceiling glass fronted dining room, plain ocher colored walls and an open ceiling with red rafters.
Even without knowing all this background, after eating there, you will know that someone very special is in the kitchen. In this simple and pleasant looking eatery, we were wowed by some of the best classic Greek dishes we've ever eaten.
What distinguishes Chef Yianni's cuisine (besides his great cooking) is his emphasis on healthy low-fat, low cholesterol and natural ingredients. For instance, we were delighted to see that the dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) were prepared with turkey instead of lamb, or you can have them vegetarian style.
We were even more delighted when we tasted them. They were simply the best ever, erasing the memory of all previous dolmades. The filling was an irresistible mixture of balanced flavors, tender meaty turkey, rice, pine nuts, currants and dill. Lifting them up yet another notch was a perfectly balanced and lightly sweetened lemon sauce.
Taking our taste buds on another trip was melitzanosalata, a smooth pureed eggplant dip flavored with walnuts, tahini paste and very good olive oil. An underlying subtle sweetness accompanied each bite while the tongue picked up different nuances reverberating like a good wine.
We eschewed the mundane pita bread and yummed it up with spoons. Once again Chef Yianni balances flavors beautifully. It seems to be his special talent that we continually appreciated throughout the meal.
Our eyes popped when our amiable server placed one prodigious spanakopita in front of us. The overstuffed triangle of pastry, measuring at least six inches on a side, was filled with a mildly-flavored spinach and feta cheese mixture. The flaky phyllo dough seemed to have a dozen perfectly browned crispy layers. We just wished that the filling had a little more zip.
The menu is organized so that you can compose your own entrée by choosing one of nine proteins accompanied by two "small bites" (actually large side dishes): dips, vegetables, salads, rice and potatoes.
There are also kebab plates, where you can order one, two or three skewers plus two "small bites" as well as standards: roast chicken, filet of sole and lamb chops with sides, or spaghetti, pastitsio and moussaka.
We couldn't resist choosing falafel as one of our entrées since it's a Mediterranean classic that we really like when they're good. And these were much better than good. Falafels are ground chickpea patties that are deep-fried, usually seasoned with garlic, onions, parsley, coriander, cumin and cayenne.
For balance, some mild pickled vegetables provided a nice sour sharpness to accompany the crunchy discs. There was just a drizzle of tasty sauce (which we would have liked a little more).
It's de rigeur to have kebabs in a Mediterranean restaurant, so we tried chicken and lamb. Both were perfectly cooked, juicy and flavorful. Our "small bites" were simple roasted mushrooms and horta (boiled dandelion greens) with lemon and olive oil. The mushrooms were pleasant but the greens were drowning in olive oil.
We only managed to eat about half the food we ordered but we had to have to dessert. Bougatsa is a semolina and vanilla bean custard wrapped in phyllo. It was a knockout.
What made this meal unusual was that we were reluctant to give up each unfinished dish for the next.
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.
Where: 16365 Bolsa Chica St., Huntington Beach
Sunday through Thursday: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Friday through Saturday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Takeout and family value meals available
By the glass: $5-$8
Corkage Fee: $5
Information: (714) 316-5000; http://www.olivepitgrill.com