Sam nearly leapt out of her seat when she saw the whoosh of flames and the waiter shout “opa!” while he set the goat cheese afire. This little floor show as the waiter squeezes lemon juice to extinguish the flaming saganaki invites interest. The buttery, bubbly kefalograviera cheese mixture is a great introduction to a boisterous night of al fresco dining at Channelside’s Taverna Opa, which overlooks Harbour Island.
Opa is the Greek “Ole,’’ an expression of joy, but a few customers still get their dander up. One lady was mad at the manager because his 30-minute estimate was too long for her.
“I guess it’s a compliment that we are doing something right,’’ says manager Chad Bolsinger. This didn’t satisfy dragon lady. He wanted her to get real and almost said, “Lady, this is ridiculous, you just came here too late.’’
Bolsinger keeps busy booking baptisms and parties for Greek locals. His willingness to roast a whole pig or lamb is the kind of attitude that would bring in repeat customers.
He’s smart to keep waiting diners entertained with tasty hummus samplings and sultry belly dancers. As we waited, our fellow diner, Glen, whipped out cell phone snapshots of him dancing on the tables with the lively dancers at Orlando’s Opa.
On the culinary side, attractions are the spinach-filled phyllo appetizer, spanakopita; zesty, herby meatballs; and crisp, fried calamari (with a tomato sidekick.) The octopus also makes a positive impression. It tentacles are boiled, steamed, then grilled and have a good splash of lemon. Tomato, cucumber, onion, kalamata olives and feta cheese, the horiatiki salad, was missing the traditional peppers, however.
You can’t go Greek without lamb. Opa’s tender lamb shank over tomato-sauced orzo — sprightlier than most — is the Mount Olympus of entrées. Athenian shrimp plate, with plump shellfish in a garlic, wine and tomato sauce is served over a spinach-tinged rice tossed with feta cheese. The char-grilled fish, zesty with capers, nestles nicely with rice pilaf and tasty greens. Pork souvlaki over pita is a reliable choice. A brawny moussaka, with eggplant, ground beef and pillowy, nutmeg-kissed, béchamel sauce, borders on the salty side, however.
The ekmek’s shredded phyllo is luscious foil for custard, walnuts and whipped topping, which you want to keep lapping up. The galaktoboureko had a rich custard, too, but the honey had saturated the phyllo pastry a tad long.
Opa opened a little more than a year ago, arriving as a franchise (also in West Palm Beach and South Beach). And yes, you’re remembering correctly if you’re thinking Opa operated in Ybor City for less than six months back in 2007. The tavern is the epitome of a convivial spot where some patrons smoke from hookahs on the patio. The atmosphere is further set by a raucous volume, both inside and out.
Greek’s venerable tradition of pairing lively music with the throwing of plates is substituted with a whirlwind of servers tossing napkins. When the napkins start flying, the tavern feels as if you’ve just toured the Parthenon.
“We don’t throw plates because too many women wear open-toed shoes and we’d have lawsuits,’’ surmises Bolsinger. “We go through two or three boxes, that are about 2,000 napkins on a weekend,’’ he adds.
As a drinking establishment, patrons go for shots of ouzo, kamikazes and Jagermeisters that fit most people’s budget. One of Hennessey’s several hundred year-old- cognacs is pricier at $450 a shot. And if the NFL players go on strike, they probably will sell a lot fewer shots.
Find it: 615 Channelside Dr., Tampa
To park: Park at the garage across the street
Pay for it: MC, V, Discover
Full bar, wine and beer
Reach them: (813) 443-4821
Meanwhile, Castillo’s the great little lunch spot just down the road also on Armenia, will open in NoHo’s old location, 1714 N.Armenia Ave. (813) 251-2015, in early May. They are keeping their original location open to do their catering.
Not chopped: Congratulations, Nate Appleman. The CIA-trained chef won the five week, All-Stars Chopped Chef competition Sunday night. He brings $50,000 to the Kawasaki Disease Foundation to help his son who suffers from the disease. I doubt there was a dry eye when the toddler ran into his dad’s arms at the announcement. Chef Nate is a James Beard Award Winner, Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef, Iron Chef America challenger and competitor, and recipient of 1,000 new facebook friends this week. http://www.foodnetwork.com/chopped
Brimming with bacon: My son fries up a pan of bacon almost daily. I try to stay away but the aroma of salty, smoky bacon can vex even the most die hard vegetarian. I haven’t eaten at a Denny’s in two decades but Alert reader Julie tells me Denny’s fries up bacon big time with its Baconalia menu. There is a BBBLT, eight strips of hickory-smoked bacon, lettuce and tomato, on toasted potato bread. Finish that with a Maple Bacon Sundae, vanilla ice cream with maple syrup and diced bacon. Just don’t tell your cardiologist. More information.