Calamari basil pesto

Calamari basil pesto with sautéed calamari tossed with Italian-style pesto and then served with crunchy kataifi. (Kouzina Greek Bistro / Courtesy / November 29, 2013)

First impression: Miami has definitely discovered Greek food in the past few years. Kouzina arrived this past spring, joining nearby Egg and Dart and Mandolin Aegean Bistro. I've watched all kinds of restaurants open in this spot, but Kouzina may be what the neighborhood needs with its friendly prices, friendly service and laid-back vibe.

Ambience: The 90-seat brick patio, set with wooden tables and chairs, invites lingering. One long table offers a benchlike banquette with colorful pillows. Inside, the 40-seat whitewashed dining room has one azure wall decorated with blue and white plates and a white framed mirror.

Starters: It would be very easy to build a meal around meze, both cold and hot. Inventive chef Alexa Apostolidis does much more than traditional Greek. She's a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who returned to Greece for her home country's version of "Top Chef." Consider calamari basil pesto ($12), where sautéed calamari is tossed with Italian-style pesto and then served with crunchy kataifi dough, which most of us only see in Greek desserts. It's a brilliant mash-up. Every Greek meal should start with dips, and at Kouzina the hummus ($6) is thick and creamy with just the right amount of garlic. Melitzanosalata ($7) has a nice, smoky flavor, while tzatziki ($6) does garlic just right. Order them all together in the platter ($13), which arrives with a small tin can filled with fresh, warm pita triangles. Apostolidis does typical dishes such as flaming saganaki ($9), but also such novelties as salted cod croquettes ($12) and zucchini fries ($7) served with tzatziki. Only the slight green tinge gives them away as zucchini. They taste much like fries. Greek salad ($12) was also good, and included top quality tomatoes, even at this time of year.


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Entree excellence: As you'd expect, grilled meat is a specialty here. Chicken breast souvlaki ($16) brings huge chunks of moist, skewered meat with tomatoes, peppers, onions and tzatziki. The chicken has been nicely marinated. Kouzina lamb ($20) is a specialty, slow-roasted leg served with lemon potatoes. Seafood saganaki ($25) is a combination of shrimp, mussels and calamari cooked in a tomato sauce with orzo. It's then topped with feta. The chef's Greek fajitas can be had with chicken, beef or shrimp ($14-$16).

Side issues: Fries are a wonder here, but so are the lemony potatoes and semolina puree with dried graviera cheese. Kouzina seems to have taken on the task of introducing as many Greek cheeses as possible to American palates.

Sweet! Baklava ($5) is here, of course, but Greek yogurt cheesecake ($7) is the way to go, served with a syrup made of seasonal fruit. One day at lunch, I had a slice of excellent almond cake ($7), soaked in syrup and served alongside cherry compote.

Service: Outstanding, but the restaurant sometimes seems understaffed when it shouldn't be.

Insider tip: On Thursdays starting at 9 p.m., Kouzina has live music, of the sort you'd find in a tavern in Greece.

Dining deal: Every day of the week, Kouzina offers a $19 lunch special with a choice of six appetizers, four entrees and two desserts. It is a generously sized midday meal.

jtanasychuk@SouthFlorida.com or 954-356-4632. Read his blog at SouthFlorida.com/sup and follow him on Twitter at @FloridaEats.

3535 NE Second Ave., Miami

305-392-1825, KouzinaBistro.com

Cuisine: Greek/Mediterranean

Cost: Moderate-expensive

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Reservations: Suggested

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Beer and wine

Sound level: Moderate

Outside smoking: Yes

For kids: Highchairs, boosters

Wheelchair accessible: Yes or no

Parking: $5 valet or meters