Step into Estia, and immediately escape the impending Philadelphia winter. This new addition to the Center City scene transports the diner from Locust Street straight to Greece. The elegant Mediterranean decor is tastefully elaborate, without overdoing the theme to Disney-fied proportions. Ask for a booth on the mezzanine a few steps above it all, and watch as vested waiters float seamlessly from the open kitchen to the dining area, weaving around stone columns under a ceiling of exposed wood beams. Romantic lighting is emitted from wrought iron chandeliers and sconces. The breathtaking space seats over 200, but still manages to achieve the utmost intimacy.
While not the best choice for your next belligerent birthday celebration, Estia is ideal for sweeping a date off their feet. The bar area is a great way to experience it without committing to a full meal. The list of cocktails is one of the most interesting in town, utilizing Greek liquors in popular drinks like martinis and mojitos. Try the potent Greek Mojito ($10) or the subtly sweet Mango Caipirinha ($8). The lounge adjacent to the limestone bar is a casual setting where a younger crowd gathers to drink and eat on plush couches.
In the more formal main dining room, the pace of service is slow. However, tables are never ignored, and minutes seem to fly by, even for usually impatient diners like myself. First enjoy the rustic toasted bread, served with a dish of olives swimming in Greek olive oil infused with oregano. Then linger over mezedes (appetizers), like the Spread Pikilia ($15), a selection of three Greek spreads. Creamy white Tzatziki (greek yogurt), fiery orange Htipiti (red pepper and feta) and thick purpleish Melitzano-salata (eggplant and walnut) look like an artist's palate on their pristine white platter. We also savored the decadent grilled stuffed calamari ($12), three tubes of tender squid bursting with luscious herb-flecked cheeses.
When confronted with the menu, take your surroundings as a clue to skip the mainland selections. Focus on the whole fish, this restaurant's pride and joy. Your waiter will proudly guide you over to the "indoor courtyard," complete with weathered stone floors, whitewashed walls and an olive tree. There, glistening raw fish lie over ice, staring you in the eye as you make your choices. The well-versed waiters provide a guided tour, differentiating between textures, flavors, and where each fish was flown in from just this morning. The fish are priced by the pound, and our waiter explained that one pound of fish per person was about ideal.
When our choices, Lavraki (a European sea bass, ($27/lb.) and Lethrini (a white snapper known as "The Greek Pride", $34/lb.) were presented, the two white fish looked similar, each adorned with nothing more than a handful of capers. But from the first bite, their flavors were clearly distinct, unadulterated by overpowering sauces or complicated accompaniments. Ask for an extra helping of the delicate olive oil, lemon and saffron emulsion (called ladolemono) to drizzle over your fish, otherwise you'll be licking it off the serving platter.
For dessert, we bypassed baklava in favor of our waiter's recommendation. We trusted him because we liked his Greek accent, and he was right on target. The lemon custard ($7.25), baked in phyllo dough, had the airy texture of ricotta cheese and a creamy flavor with hints of lemon. Greek coffee ($3.50), served sweetened to the diner's liking, provided an ideal ending to our tour. Don't be thrown off by the miniature-sized cups -- just a few small sips of this rich, thick drink will satisfy any coffee lover.
Dining at Estia is a one of a kind experience, though it comes with a special-occasion price tag. Save it for your next one, because it costs less than a ticket to Greece, and for those dreaming of the Mediterranean, it's surely the next best thing.