The alchemy that goes into making asuccessful restaurant is mysterious. There’s plenty of old wisdom about the importance of location, veteran staff, price point, atmosphere and a timely concept, but we’ve all seen restaurants that fail despite these exact qualities. So how does it happen that Kava Neo-Taverna, a fetching little bandbox on a placid corner of the South End, becomes an immediate hit, drawing crowds from the neighborhood and beyond with traditional Greek cuisine?
Certainly the charming setting doesn’t hurt: The densely packed, 30-seat dining room boasts a 10-seat stone bar, pale reclaimed woods, nautical accents and sunshine or streetlight streaming through tall windows. The busy 19-seat patio sits at the corner of low-traffic Shawmut Avenue, overlooking pretty Union Park. Traditional Greek music and the hubbub of conversation contribute to aggressive (bordering on painful) noise levels that can result in the occasional misheard order. But patrons don’t seem to mind shouting; everyone appears to be having too much fun.
The drinks roster is no liability, either, with its fresh angle on the challenge of making cocktails when your license only allows cordials. Here, that means a refreshing spin on a G&T in the Cucumber Tonic ($12) with cucumber vodka, muddled fresh cucumber, tonic water and lime, or a Dark Cave Manhattan ($15) that takes aged tsipouro (imagine grappa given some whiskey-like softness and brownness in wooden barrels) with sweet vermouth, bitters and a good cherry. Of course there’s a roster of mostly Greek wines, 12 by the glass ($9-$14) and nearly 30 bottles ($45-$150, most under $65). That includes a half-liter of retsina ($14), the ancient Greek white whose pine-resin aroma inspires equal measures of vacation-inspired nostalgia and grimaces from wine snobs. The half-dozen bottles of beer ($6-$8) include a couple of brisk, refreshing Greek lagers.
But I suspect the most magnetic draw is the almost primordial pleasures of traditional Greek fare, here done in very straightforward fashion with a focus on mezedakia, the sociable small plates that the South End clearly loves (witness its three Spanish restaurants, two pan-Asian small-plates places, the new cicchetti-focused Venetian bacaro, etc.). There is something elemental and simply satisfying in the endless combinations of atomic Mediterranean ingredients: olive oil, lemon juice and honey, phyllo, greens and nightshades, thick yogurt and rustic cheeses, lamb and chicken and seafood, the charcoal kiss of grill fire.
The use of Greek names may initially confuse Anglophones, but you know most of these foods intimately, if perhaps from less skillful or fresh-tasting incarnations. Feta psiti ($10) wraps tangy sheep or goat cheese in crisp phyllo and drizzles it with honey and sesame seeds. Spanakopita ($9) is mostly densely layered spinach flavored with onion and dotted with feta under a phyllo crust. Melitsanosalata ($9) offers a bright, simple dip of roasted eggplant, lemon, oil and garlic, here served with good crusty sourdough instead of pita. Pikilia ($10) offers three wedges of homey, pastoral Greek cheeses with a compote of sour cherries and honey.
Nearly unadorned, delectable proteins include maritha ($15), a generous basket of crisp, batter-fried (adolescent, not fry-sized) smelts needing nothing but a squeeze of lemon; slightly chewy octapodi ($16), grilled octopus in a puddle of oil, lemon and oregano; nicely charred souvlaki ($10), grilled kebabs of marinated chicken or pork; and keftedes ($10), juicy, sweet-spiced, flattened lamb meatballs with yogurt/cucumber dip. Enameled-iron casseroles yield stunners like saganaki garides ($15), baked shrimp and feta in a gorgeously straightforward sauce of tomato, slightly fiery chilies and onions, contrasted with the gentler comforts of imam ($11), baked eggplant, tomato, onion, garlic and stringy kasseri cheese. Horiatiki ($14) is an especially chunky, vivid version of the classic village salad.
The handful of a la carte, larger-format dishes include a hefty mousaka ($20) layering potatoes, roasted eggplant, a thin beef ragout and a thick layer of bechamel into messy-looking but delectable casserole; a staggering mixed grill ($32) of lamb chops, chicken and pork souvlaki, and the orange peel-and-nutmeg- accented pork sausage loukaniko; and lavraki ($29), grilled Mediterranean sea bass served (in a neat bit of knife work) whole but filleted, with a lemon and oil dip on the side. Sides to round out these big plates include bland patates lemonates ($7), the much more impressive bamias laderes ($7), a casserole of braised okra, tomatoes and carrots, and ultra-traditional horta ($7), cold braised mustard greens in olive oil. Desserts include a fine, not-too-sweet baklava ($7) and a pretty swirl of excellent Greek yogurt ($7) topped with honey and walnuts.
Kava clearly benefits a bit from the current super-trendy revival of more elevated Greek cuisine, managing to fall niftily between the more avant-garde Greek stylings of Brendan Pelley’s Pelekasis (likely to graduate to a space of his own after an extended residency at the nearby Wink & Nod) and the pricier, slightly bowdlerized take that Michael Schlow is doing at Doretta Taverna & Raw Bar. More remarkable is how owners George Axiotis, Irakli Gogitidze and Shahrokh Reza have zeroed in on, and then beautifully executed, a relaxed, convivial, subtly sophisticated concept that fits Kava’s swish neighborhood to a T.
Kava Neo-Taverna 315 Shawmut Ave., Boston (617-356-1100) kavaneotaverna.com
Hours: Mon.-Wed., 5-11 pm, Thu.-Fri., 5-11:30 pm, Sat., 11 am-11:30 pm, Sun., 11 am-11 pm
Parking: Very limited street spaces
Liquor: Beer, wine and cordials