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Plaka Taverna marshals comfort food with style

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I never visit Chicago without a dinner at one of the Greek restaurants on South Halsted Street. Athena. Greek Islands. Pegasus. You can count on any of them for great comfort food at very modest prices. A flaming saganaki cheese served with a hearty "Oompah!" Avgolemono, that beautiful egg-lemon chicken cream soup. And my absolute favorite - succulent braised lamb with roast potatoes and green beans simmered in tomato sauce. Memories of these meals still haunt me at odd moments.

For some reason, Madison has never been a haven for Greek restaurants. Kosta's on State Street filled the bill until it closed some years ago, but nothing since. So, when Telly and Beth Fatsis turned their venerable Cleveland Diner into Plaka Taverna and Ouzeria, hope sprang in my heart. They have completely revamped the space. Now, with a substantial bar, comfortable table seating and pepper-red walls decorated with Greek-themed posters, you'd never guess it was once a diner.

Several visits for dinner at Plaka have yielded mixed results. There is avgolemono, but no braised lamb with potatoes and green beans, and no flaming saganaki cheese.

But there are plenty of other traditional Greek dishes, some better than others. The avgolemono is excellent, a true comfort food for cold winter days. My lamb kabobs, on the other hand, were disappointing - overcooked and tough, with a curious lack of lamb flavor. These were served with a very nice rice pilaf, substantial in texture and full of flavor, with crunchy carrots and zucchini. The pita bread, served with nearly everything, is warm and fresh, and the yogurt-cucumber sauce, also ubiquitous, is outstanding, with just the right amount of garlic and lemon to make it assertive but not assaultive.

The grilled pork souvlaki, the pork marinated in yogurt sauce, was excellent. It's served with the crunchy vegetables or spiced taverna fries, which were nothing special, seeming to lack the advertised spice.

Kastro kabobs were a hit. These are chunks of moist and tender chicken breast marinated in garlic, olive oil and oregano, served over rice pilaf with vegetables. Also recommended is the spanakopita dinner, spinach pie endowed with herbs, onion and feta cheese. Served with rice pilaf and vegetables, this is a steal at $8.25.

On the down side, I was disappointed in my gyros. The lamb/beef mixture, shaved from the traditional cone, was served at room temperature and was surprisingly tasteless.

The side salad, on the other hand, was outstanding. Fresh and cold mesclun greens, red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, black olives and feta were dressed in a sharp vinaigrette - a good addition to any meal.

Vegetarians can look forward to the salad and spinach pie, plus there's a hummus, bruschetta and felafel combo plate.

Among appetizers, skordalia is a garlic-infused potato puree dip, served cold with pita bread. This is a traditional dip, not greatly appreciated by our group. The dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with rice, sauteed in olive oil and served with yogurt sauce) were acceptable, but hardly memorable. I'm sorry I didn't try the red pepper dip with pita, or the lokaniko, grilled sausage with pita.

Other Greek items on the menu include moussaka, ouzo burgers, beef-teki (a Greek hamburger), and several salads. For dessert, of course, there is baklava, this version not dripping with honey and super-sweet, like most, but more restrained, letting the flavor of the nuts take over.

With Greek or Turkish food, I love a good chilled retsina wine. Retsina, flavored with resin, is despised by most right-thinking people, but I keep explaining that it's an acquired taste. Just because it tastes like turpentine, doesn't mean it's not good. Plaka's retsina is especially mild, so let's call it an entry-level retsina. My companions, unconvinced, ordered a bottle of Apella Grecian Roditis, a dry and very mild-tasting Greek rosé.

Despite its occasional misses, I like Plaka. Any place that serves generous amounts of comfort food, at modest prices, earns my gratitude and respect. Now when can we expect the braised lamb with roast potatoes and green beans simmered in tomato sauce?

Plaka Taverna will be closed for dinners through Dec. 1. They are open for breakfast and lunch.

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