A hankering for Greek food typically takes me to my local mom-and-pop spot. The food is not great, and not creative, but it is simple, traditional and consistent. The restaurant has a handful of tables, but offers no table service and does a booming takeout business. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in food. On a recent night, cravings for a Greek dining experience with elevated food preparations, presentations and service pointed my car westward.
Rafina Greek Taverna is tucked away in the back of a mixed-use plaza. Nearing completion of a major renovation, the Boardwalk at 18th St. is home to retail, office and restaurant tenants. Navigating the rubble of the construction zone can be tricky.
Inside the restaurant, we were led through a sleek, contemporary dining room with coffered ceilings casting a Mediterranean blue tone to an outdoor dining deck. Waterside dining here involves a manmade lake with aspirating sprays. Tiki torches line the deck at sunset.
As we contemplated the menu, a bowl of delicious orange dip and warm pita triangles appeared. Little did I know, the complimentary roasted red pepper, feta and jalapeno spread would become my favorite dish of the night. Sometimes, the best things in life really are free.
Restaurateurs Paul Tzikas and Yanni Agelopoulos launched Rafina in May 2015. You may recognize Agelopoulos from his other casual Boca eatery, It's All Greek. Dubbed a modern Greek and Mediterranean restaurant, Rafina features all the traditional dishes one may expect. Chef Janis Mucollari dabbles in a fusion of sorts, deviating with appetizers such as baby back ribs and lamb and chicken empanada ($14) appetizers. But the modern twist stops there, and the rest of the menu reads like a classic Greek cookbook.
We began with one of four appetizer dips ($7 each or $14 for 3): hummus, tzatziki, taramosalata and melitzanosalata. The roasted eggplant was loaded with lemon, garlic, dill and parsley. It was pleasantly smoky, and served with warm pita.
Against my better judgment, we explored the "modern" side of the menu, with the chicken empanada ($14). Although spinach is listed as an ingredient, it was more of a sparse parsley garnish placed inside a pasty chicken filling wrapped in undercooked dough. The accompanying white-cheese sauce was not listed on the menu. It draped the pastry and had the tanginess of old cheese ends. We should have stuck with the classics.
Our Greek salads arrived as we waited for our last appetizer. They were nothing more and nothing less than expected. Juicy, red, ripe tomatoes were a big plus, but the mushy rice that filled the grape leaves in the dolmades was uninteresting.
We reminded our server that we never received our order of bifteki ($9), which the menu says are charbroiled beef patties with mint, parsley and garlic. When the appetizer finally made it to the table, the patties looked succulent, with crisp, browned edges. But the flavor was salty and slightly off. Our server said it was a combination of beef and lamb. The menu made no mention of lamb, and the patty had the same funky taste as the cheese sauce on the empanada. The server said it wasn't feta, but as a seasoned food stylist, I know a melted cheese pull when I see one. A semisoft center may be typical of this dish, but in this case, overly moist breadcrumbs left me biting into an unpleasant soggy interior. I wished I'd kept my mouth shut and finished my salad. Other traditional offerings include spanakopita ($8), saganaki ($11) and grilled octopus ($14) marinated in olive oil and red-wine sauce.
When our entrees arrived, the table was still cluttered with appetizer plates. The food runner stood there smiling, as if he expected us to clear the table. I politely suggested he set the entrees on an empty neighboring table. He removed the dirty plates and my silverware, promising to return with more. He never did. With no server in sight, I grabbed a roll of utensils off the same neighboring table.
By this point, I was committed to the classics. The moussaka ($18) was a larger-than-life square of layered eggplant and potatoes with ground beef. It was topped with an excessive amount of an eggy, dense custard that the menu described as béchamel, which we expected and would have preferred. Oddly, it seemed as if the meat and vegetable portions of the dish were cooked separately from the wobbly square of custard towering atop them.
I can't technically say the charbroiled lamb chops ($32 for five and $25 for three) , marinated in fresh herbs and garlic, were overcooked, because the server never asked for the desired temperature. If that is standard ordering protocol at Rafina, then a medium temperature would make sense. Suffice it to say that they took the "char" in "charbroiled" literally. One of the three chops was edible and borderline medium, leaning toward medium-well. The other two chops were dry and way overcooked. The bones were black, leaving ready-made handles brittle to the touch and crumbling on the plate. Proper positioning on the grill or a square of aluminum foil usually solves this problem. Wedges of lemon-roasted potatoes supported the teepee of chops. The seasonal vegetable — green beans stewed with tomato, onion and bay leaf — was the highlight of the dish.
When the shrimp Santorini ($24) with tomatoes, spinach, and feta was served over rice instead of the requested orzo, on the heels of our requesting empty water glasses be refilled for the second time, I didn't have the desire or the patience to bring it to our server's attention. To seal the deal, the dish was oversalted, and the shrimp was overcooked. All entrees are served with a choice of soup or Greek salad. Other classic entrees to consider are pastitsio ($18), lamb shank ($22) and whole charbroiled bronzini "lavraki" ($30) with olive oil and lemon glaze.
Had this not been a working dinner, I'd have passed on dessert. Rice pudding ($6) was creamy with a touch of cinnamon, but it boasted more pudding than rice. And the rice had the same overcooked mouth feel as that in the dolmades. Baklava ($7) started out crispy on top only to reveal layers of filo swimming in a puddle of honey or sugar syrup below. Sokolatina ($8) took the cake among the desserts. Chocolate lovers will enjoy the three layers of dark chocolate cake filled with a light chocolate mousse and topped with a chocolate frosting.
As the mishaps replayed in my head, I took into consideration that the restaurant was full on the Friday night we visited. But after 1 1/2 years in business, Rafina should offer better service.
Before visiting the restaurant, I checked out its website, where the food appears mouthwatering and nothing like it does in person. Could the construction and low summer season have taken a toll on the kitchen? Maybe it was just an off night?
On the way home, I thought about my neighborhood Greek joint, and was reminded that sometimes less really is more.
Rafina Greek Taverna
6877 SW 18th St., Boca Raton
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Credit cards: All major
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Available
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Ample lot
Kids: Highchairs, booster seats, kids' menu