My first experience with Greek food starred several smiling, aproned servers who—in between rehearsed explanations of the meze arriving on cobalt blue dishes—shouted "Opa!" with tireless enthusiasm. Later that evening, a belly dancer twirled into the dining room, shedding glitter with each undulation.
At the time, my teenage palate could not discern between Greek and "Greek" fare. I happily gorged on wads of the reheated, store-bought pita bread while taking in the restaurant's wall murals, each depicting hackneyed Greek landscapes in Jolly Rancher shades.
Fast-forward several years and I've graduated to a kitsch-free, sophisticated-but-not-pretentious Greek dining experience. The newly opened Barleyanfigs in La Jolla feels refined and also slightly austere (6830 La Jolla Blvd.). On a recent afternoon, I opted for an outdoor table, as the dining room—with its dark walls, tables and chairs—felt starved of light.
Husband-and-wife duo Constantine and Sofi Coss opened Barleyanfigs this past January. Chef Sofi helms the kitchen, preparing classic Greek fare like spinach-stuffed spanakopita and grilled gyros served simply with pita bread and tzatziki.
For those who need reminding, tzatziki is the versatile Greek yogurt sauce flavored with olive oil, garlic and dill. I consider it the ketchup of Greek cuisine; used as both a sauce and a dip, it accompanies almost every dish.
Tzatziki played a supporting role in my friend's chicken souvlaki entrée: Marinated and charbroiled skewered chunks of meat—"souvlaki" means "little skewers"—join chewy pita bread, red onions and slippery cubes of fresh tomato. Without the yogurt dip, the souvlaki would have felt incomplete. Barleyanfigs' version is especially excellent—rich and tangy with chunks of cucumber adding generous crunch. The mildly seasoned chicken pieces need an extra punch of flavor, and the tzatziki provides it.
Tzatziki also makes an appearance in the pikilia appetizer, which features four dips. "Pikilia" means "variety," and at $11, the dish is more than reasonably priced, as it flaunts a fat scoop of each dip. Though less well known than the beloved yogurt sauce, the patzari, tarama and melitzana are just as delectable.
Nicknamed "tarama," taramasalata is a pale-pink paste made from fish roe. Though both my friend and I relished its smoky-salty flavor, I could see it being a polarizing player due to its briny taste. The patzari—with its easier-to-stomach ingredient list of beets, walnuts, yogurt and garlic—is much more of a crowd pleaser.
The melitzana completes the quartet. You'll be surprised to discover that eggplant—and not apple—is the main ingredient here. That's because Barleyanfigs' version is slightly sweet and even looks more like the crunchy, pomaceous fruit. Scooped over a slice of lightly toasted pita bread, it almost mimics dessert with its fragrant flavor.
Unfortunately, tzatziki did not attend the mousaka party—but I understand why. After all, there's no room for the yogurt dip in mousaka, an oven-baked dish consisting of eggplant, ground beef and béchamel sauce. Still, as I set aside my fork, unable to polish off Barleyanfigs' ample portion, I couldn't help but think that something was missing.