When you stumble on the best tzatziki you’ve ever had, as I did at the Capitol Hill Greek taverna Omega Ouzeri, you ask your waiter to box up what you can’t finish. You have no shame about this, given that its fathomless richness made your pupils dilate, thank you Greek yogurt, and that in spite of or maybe because of its conspiring herbs it captured the cool essence of cucumbers better than a cucumber. What fool wouldn’t take it home.
Except I was traveling by Car2go that night.
Maybe the next lucky Car2go user found the doggie box. Maybe he even ate it. If so, he loved it. I left him some triangles of soft pita too, though the poor fella wouldn’t get the benefit of Omega’s genuine—“Oh you have just a little sauce left? Let me go warm up a few more pitas for you”—hospitality.
Which is all to say: There is a better place than the interior of a Car2go to savor what Omega Ouzeri has to offer. The word for this taverna is buoyant—in its flavors certainly, as in that tzatziki, or in wholesome herb-forward lemon-soused grain salad beneath a chunk of crusty seared halibut, or crispy zucchini fritters with feta-creamy interiors packing exquisite little detonations of mint.
But buoyant better nails Omega’s atmosphere, which may at first feel sparer than an American idea of Greek excess would demand: a blanched and minimalist hard-cornered room whose only departure from white on white comes from the occasional splash of Santorini blue, and the bottles of the Greek spirits ouzo and tsipouro lined up behind the bar. Oh, and the purpled octopus sprawling on ice behind the host station.
But as evening ripens along this restaurant-heavy block of Pike/Pine and the ouzo begins to flow and Omega finds its crowd—gay men, families, always one or two big reveling groups (including private ones in the loft above)—the spot begins to pulse with vitality. It’s noisy, public, open to the sidewalk, a little more brightly lit than one might crave on a date, gently controlled by a fleet of heartily hospitable staff, and across its expanse owner Thomas Soukakos affably roams, clearing tables and presenting plates and greeting his friends, who appear to be everyone in the room. He grew up in a village in the south of Greece and dreamed of recreating that country’s rousing ouzeria culture; much like our coffeehouse culture in its drop-in sociability.
Instead he opened the acclaimed El Greco on Broadway in 1994, which was Greek but known mostly for its breakfasts; then the even more acclaimed Vios in 2004, which was Greek but known mostly for its surfeit of children. Soukakos launched that second restaurant raw with grief: His wife Carol, who suffered postpartum depression, had died by her own hand. Vios, Greek for life, became not just home away from home for his young child, but his means for and tribute to the seemingly simple business of going on.
Omega Ouzeri, it appears, is his arrival. He’s married again—Rebecca Soukakos handles the front of the house—and this restaurant isn’t as much a personal path to redemption as it is a cultural one. He hired Greeks to construct the website, the wine list, even the buildout plans, toward an end of telling “a different story about Greece” than the financially bleak one all over the news. Each table has a medicinal-looking little tube of Greece’s famous Kalas salt, which lends a mineral savor to the food and is particularly winning lavished over the herb-and-cheese-speckled Greek fries.
You won’t use it much. In fact the professional finish of Omega’s preparations may even confound expectations: It’s a (primarily) small-plate drop-in nosh spot, after all, and not a destination. The vibe is youthful informality: A toddler might be squishing something at a nearby table. So you probably aren’t expecting the beef-pork meatballs to be this fine, ditto the Mykonou kopanisti—a red pepper dip with a spark of goat horn chili fire and a sly blend of manouri and briny feta cheeses—or the frisky starter of grilled halloumi with sliced grapes, pine nuts, and drizzles of the grape syrup petimezi.
A shellfish special was a masterpiece of calibration, its clams and mussels lolling in a tomato sauce enlivened with fennel bulb and laced with ouzo, whose licorice notes arrived in just the right proportion. (Ouzo is employed all over this ouzeria, from cocktails to food preparations; one realizes when it’s whipped into the cream atop a lemon custard dessert that it may be too assertive a flavor to show up in so many dishes.) Soukakos prizes freshness—when the village you grew up in had no refrigeration, farm to table is no tagline—so blistered shishito peppers have that fresh-off-the-stem crunch, grilled lavraki (branzino) is fluffy and cloudlike of flesh, and robed in those Greek stalwarts of lemon and oil and garlic and served with the only real dud of my visits, a flavorless fava bean puree.
My only other complaint concerned that purple guy on ice near the entry, whose tentacles had been marinated and grilled, then arrayed across a field of bitter greens and fried Yukon gold potatoes. Flavors were transporting—the marinated octopus meat a bona fide revelation—but textures, including mushy potatoes and a coating of slime across the octopus, were troubling. Probably the cooks had left the octopus skin on, which is common in Greece and perfectly acceptable. And slimy.
As we were being served our loukoumades—fried dough balls, thickly crunchy crust giving way to dense, moist pastry within, alongside a dipping pot of spiced honey and another of dark Valrhona chocolate, constituting the very Platonic ideal of this dessert—we spied a tattoo winding around our server’s forearm like a snake bracelet. “Happy Humble Grateful Conscious,” it read, as if it were a business plan.