Dining Review of Pathos
Upscale organic Greek delights, including octopus, star on the menu at this Berkeley upstart.
Don’t miss the htapodi, grilled octopus.
After our first dinner at Pathos in May, I said to Robin, “There wasn’t anything we ate that I wouldn’t order again.” And that was saying something, because five of us, parked in a comfy patterned banquette and amply cushioned white leather chairs around a large table, shared six dishes from the nine-item orektiko (small plates) section of the menu and two from the kyrio piato (main courses).
Sadly, that meant that, in the interest of a wider ranging review, we wouldn’t be revisiting certain small plates (all $9): the htapodi, a perfectly grilled (tender and slightly charred) large octopus tentacle; the delectably crunchy and salty marides, fried smelts with fried lemons and a lemon aioli; the gigantes, giant horse beans in tomato sauce and herbs; the spanakopita, flaky filo stuffed with spinach, feta, mint, dill, fennel, and leeks; the keftedes, three Niman lamb meatballs in a savory tomato sauce; or the triada, three dips—cucumber-and-yogurt tzatziki, spicy tirokafteri cheese spread, and smoky eggplant melitzanosalata—served with thick house-made pita. Nor would we reprise the entrée portions of mind-altering moussaka ($22) or devour-to-the-last-morsel lavraki, whole wild white sea bass cooked in the wood-fired oven ($32). And with only two of us dining this time, there was no way we were going to work through the rest of the kitchen’s offerings, which include soups (egg-lemon with chicken and rice, and brown lentil, both $7), salads (grilled endive with goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts; beets with feta, shaved fennel, and kalamatas; and roasted strawberries, arugula, Manouri cheese, and toasted almonds, all $11).
Oh, the sacrifices we make. Still, we hadn’t yet sampled the house cocktails (all $13), so I had an Astoria (St. George Breaking & Entering bourbon, vermouth, bitters, and ouzo), and Robin had a mojitolike Citrine with rum, fresh lime, and mint (other Citrine variations incorporate vodka or tequila). After ordering three small plates and two main dishes, we had a good chance to take in the finely executed restaurant design and ambience—a sedate palette of grays, blacks, chocolates, and tans in the wood and paint, with stylish lamps, ceramic vases highlighted in recessed niches, wood-framed mirrors on the walls, a capacious and copiously stocked bar, and an enormous open kitchen, about the size of the entire 55-seat dining area, with a wood oven dramatically positioned front and center. Just enough casual touches (a flat-screen TV at the bar, a dining counter facing the oven, a quasi-industrial ceiling of exposed steel beams) dial back the elegance.
The service struck a similar balance of populism and formality—friendly and conversational, but with attention to timing and a handle on the details of the less familiar dishes. One of those was the saganaki, a small plate of Greek cheese, fried and brought to the table after it has been doused in white wine and set aflame in the kitchen. It came adorned with halved cherry tomatoes, lemon, and oregano. I could have eaten two. But I would have died. When I asked our server, which of the mains—the kotopoulo sto fourno, wood-oven-roasted half chicken ($27), or the paidaka, Niman Ranch lamb chops ($34)—was more of a signature dish, without hesitation he said the lamb. The three meaty chops, medium rare, subtly seasoned, and plated prettily with sautéed spinach and pan-seared potatoes, lived up to his endorsement.
Some dishes offered surprises behind the curtain of the consistently artistic presentations. In an unusual spin on classic stuffed spinach leaves, the dolmades were served warm, which brought out the flavor of the dominant ground lamb (mixed with rice) in a filling accented by parsley, mint, leeks, and dill. Similarly startling was the gemista ($19), a huge red bell pepper stuffed with Niman Ranch beef and rice, and served with briam (mixed vegetables in tomato sauce) and twice-cooked potatoes. Equally unexpected, but in a less positive light, had been the “pita” small plate—several puffy wedges of the wood-oven-baked pita served with olives and two small, rectangular logs of feta. Priced at $9, like all the other small plates, this one triggered the WTF alarm.
By the time our main dishes arrived, we were ready for wine. Available bottles include an interesting mix of Greek and domestic reds and whites, with a couple of French, Spanish, and Italian vintage thrown in, plus a few Rosé, sweet, and sparkling selections ($23–$143). We chose an Oenodea blend of Cabernet, Agiorgikto, and Syrah from the limited by-the-glass list (all $9), and it proved a good companion to both the stuffed pepper and the lamb chops. The only dessert option that night was baklava, but we were too full and had already tasted it on our previous visit. The flaky, honeyed, and often-super-sticky-sweet dessert is not one of my favorites, but this airier walnut-and-almond filled version, from chef-owner Nicholas Eftimiou’s mother, could convert me.
We didn’t leave our second dinner at Pathos in exactly the same mindset as we did our first. For one thing, I still hankered for another taste of that spectacular octopus (graced with shaved red onion and fried capers) and another dive into the moussaka—Eftimiou’s rendition is light years away from the mushy mélanges I remember from 1970s hippie potlucks. His is somewhat deconstructed, with the seasoned ground lamb layered onto roasted eggplant and topped with a dreamy yogurt béchamel. Roasted Yukon Gold potatoes are served on the side. Likewise, I regretted not indulging in another oven-roasted whole bass (offered with head on or off, boned or not), with its crispy skin, moist white flesh (the fish is steamed before it is roasted), herb stuffing, and a lemon-saffron butter sauce that seeps into a bed of rice pilaf. Also, we left knowing we wouldn’t order the pita small plate again—uniform pricing of the orektiko does not translate into equitable—and we’d probably skip cocktails, despite their excellence; $13 just seems out of whack for the East Bay.
That said, we would return to try the soups and salads and for the dishes we found stellar, most based on recipes from Eftimiou’s grandmother and overseen in execution by his mother when the restaurant opened last November. Greek food elevated this far above the deli take-out template is a rarity in the Bay Area, and the overall Pathos vibe is a pleasing one. In a recent short story called “Tiger Mending,” by magical writer Aimee Bender, a character who worked at Burger King praises handcrafted items because “they still have the person’s mark on them, and when you hold them you feel less alone. This is why everyone who eats a Whopper leaves a little more depressed than they were when they came in.” We might have exited Pathos lighter in the wallet than we’d prefer, but we did walk out satiated and smiling.
Pathos Organic Greek Kitchen. Greek. 2430 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-981-8339, Serves dinner 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m. Wed.–Sun., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. brunch Sat.–Sun. www.pathosrestaurant.com, CC, Full Bar, Reservations, WC, $$$$