Foodie Finds: Taverna Opa Orlando
One of the things I love most about living in Orlando is our ability to take a day or an evening and ‘transport’ ourselves to some exotic location somewhere else in the world. We can go to Africa thanks to Disney; we can visit the town of Portofino, Italy thanks to a hotel at Universal; and we can have the complete experience of an extended dinner in Greece thanks to the wonderful – fun – and welcoming restaurant TAVERNA OPA ORLANDO.
FOOD is a major part of Greek culture. Greeks (in Greece) do ALL of their entertaining and celebrating in long dinner evenings at their favorite Taverna, to which friends and extended family are invited. The food starts coming as soon as you sit down and it continues for hours. I’ve experienced – and said, “Only in Greece can you meet someone – have dinner with them – and at the end of the dinner feel as if you’ve been friends for years.” THAT is the extraordinary experience I had dining at TAVERNA OPA ORLANDO.
GREEK happens to be the cuisine I know better than any other, and Taverna Opa offers the most authentic Greek cuisine (and entertainment package) I’ve experienced outside of Athens. In magical ‘Zorba-tradition,’ Taverna Opa takes us from Orlando to the Mediterranean from the moment we walk in the door. Even the décor – with a big (faux) tree in the middle of the room recalls the tavernas tucked into the hillside of the Parthenon. Not surprisingly, TO imports its cheeses, olives, olive oil – and even its bottled water – directly from Greece.
And most importantly, owner/manager Vasilis Coumbaros grew up in the kitchen of his Grandmother (his “Yaya”) – learning about the importance of using only the freshest of ingredients. My readers have heard me repeatedly stress the importance of Chefs and Owners who – by choice – stayed in the kitchen from childhood to adulthood. Those are the restaurateurs who make a difference, and that is the case with Taverna Opa.
I pretty much dove into the plate of cold appetizers. Once you’ve had tzatziki (Greek yogurt, cucumber, dill, and garlic) in Greece, a part of your life is the ‘quest’ to find real tzatziki when you return home. With fervent hope I tasted my first spoonful (served on pita), and I was able to do my ‘foodie-happy-dance.’ Their tzatziki isn’t just great – it’s some of the best tzatziki I’VE EVER TASTED! Attributable to the home-made (daily) yogurt that pretty much denies our wimpy grocery store yogurt to even use the same name, the tzatziki at TO is the first of many reasons I will return – again and again – to this restaurant.
Please do try the more subtle Taramosalata, which is yet another study in the unique use of ingredients, and you can make a meal of the appetizers by adding the Hummus to your order. A fun-to-eat combination of chickpeas, olive oil, and garlic (the food Alexander the Great fed to his troops as they made their treacherous crossing into India), hummus helped that little picnic turn out rather well for the Greeks! I feel the same about Dolmades (grape leaves stuffed with herbed rice) as I do about tzatziki. Once you’ve tasted hand-rolled dolmades from a Greek kitchen, you believe nothing could possibly compare UNTIL you find Taverna Opa Orlando, where the Dolmades are fresh and hand-rolled daily … just like in Yaya’s kitchen.
The one ‘hot’ appetizer I tried – saganaki – (I gotta say it) is BETTER than any I’ve had in Greece. This hearty, sheep’s milk cheese is flamed table side (with brandy at TO) and that makes one wonderful difference. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Moving on to the entrée, I indulged in the mixed meat platter including grilled chicken breast with a lemon caper sauce; 2 medallions of beef tenderloin (cooked to order); 2 perfect lamb chops, which had been marinated for 36 hours before hitting the grill; and a pair of giant grilled shrimp basted in garlic and wine sauce. This was my OMG experience, and I was in heaven (or rather Olympus, in this case). Even the green beans, hidden under all that perfectly cooked and perfectly sauced meat selection, were suitable for royalty. Pulling off a platter of that variety and complexity takes unbelievable timing and talent, and my meal was perfection.
Savoring the luxury of my mixed meat platter, I was “all in” for the desserts, which are credited to Vasillis’ Mother-in-law, and each one is incredible. The ‘tasting’ plate included baklava, that magical combination of walnuts, cinnamon and honey; a custard in filo dough; a tasting of walnut cake, with accents of chocolate and cinnamon; a traditional (and healthy) serving of home-made yogurt covered in honey and walnuts; and my NEW favorite called ‘Ek Mek,’ which is too wonderful to describe as nut-cake with whipped cream topping.
Taverna Opa also offers nightly entertainment that takes the concept of singing/dancing waiters to a whole new level. In the middle of dinner, the waiters may just invite you to join them in a traditional Greek ‘line dance,’ and don’t be surprised to find a senior citizen dancing ON A TABLE with a ‘talented’ belly dancer accompanied by a 3-year-old from another table. Historically – in Greece – plates would be thrown while all this is going on, but with a nod to public safety, our waiters throw white paper napkins – achieving the same wonderful burst of freedom. Dinner comes with up-beat Greek DJ music which moves to an original blend of Greek and international music as it gets later and the wine flows from the fully stocked liquor bar.
If that all sounds like a bit much for your palate, just think about the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED rating that brought you there, enjoy the incredible food in front of you, learn a new ‘hip movement’ from the belly dancer, and shout OPA. You’ll love it. Taverna Opa offers a daily happy hour from 3 to 6 pm, with belly dancing beginning at 7 pm. Taverna Opa is at 9101 International Drive on the 2nd Level at Pointe Orlando on International Drive in Orlando, Fla. Call 407.351.8660 or visit opaorlando.com
Josh Garrick is the Florida Arts Editor for Wandering Educators