Where: 558 State St. (where The Saz used to be)
Cuisine: fusion with a mediterranean flair
Prices: Appetizers $7-10, Entrees $15, Wine mark-up 100% store price, not sure on lunch prices.
The atmosphere was the same long tunnel of prior locales, but redone with slate flooring, black&white granite tabletops, and red leather chairs. The lighting was good - not too bright, but not reliant on the obscuring safety of candlelight. The high ceilings cause a little bit of an echo, but it is acoustically much better than many places we've been (that said, note to self: when the jazz group is playing, it's okay to speak up).
At the moment, they have jazz on Mondays and Wednesdays, beginning at 9 p.m., so about when we were done eating and could enjoy it. Their music was a nice mix of standards, like "So What?" and their own inventions. But enough about them.
We ordered a bottle of the Castle Rock 2008 Pinot Noir, which proved to be a relatively light pinot, that opened well into woody spicy notes. It took about 10 minutes in the glass to come into its own, but we will definitely be buying it again.
The service was impeccable. Granted, we were the only people there for most of our meal, but rather than hide in the back, our waitress was attentive without being intrusive. She brought extra napkins without asking, anticipating our need, and refilled our wineglasses astutely. If all of their staff is like her, the experience is definitely a good one.
Now to the meat of the matter. We put aside some of our preferred food politics for a night of sampling.
Appetizers were the curried carrot soup and the sweet and sour pork ribs. This was not, for my palate, a good combination, but both were incredibly good once I decided to eat them separately rather than switching back and forth. The ribs had been previously slow-cooked, then broiled or fried later, giving them a room-temperature inside and a crispy warm outside. I don't know if that was intended, but we liked it that way. The sauce was incredible - it had a smoky sweetness with a tang that was more berry or marmalade than the usual vinegar tang of ketchup. Just enough kick to give it flair, but no one overwhelming flavor. The curried carrot soup was delicate, and thus at first I wasn't sure I liked it. As it turned out, my mouth was still full of the rib sauce's flavor. The carrots were lightly sweet, with sauteed onions not quite fully pureed in. It was served with a dollop of sour cream and a few grindings of black pepper - just enough to give each bite a little peppery sharpness. It is not, I will say, the absolute best carrot soup I've ever had, but it was very good, and I would get it again.
We split a greek salad, that was the standard mixed greens, cucumber, feta, tomatoes, and balsamic dressing. However, it was a well-done standard. My companion liked the dressing, and I thought it was normal but good.
As for entrees, the options included some very appetizing-looking items: a gyro platter for the less adventurous (though I was tempted simply because it'd been a long time since I had one), an orange-glazed salmon filet on barley-mushroom pilaf, the ever-present spanakopita, another vegetarian dish and something with pork both of which I'm blanking on at the moment but looked quite good, and what we ordered: the moussaka and a lamb shank over a medley of yukon gold potatoes, apples, sauerkraut, and a "cherry gastrique."
The moussaka was a) huge, and b) delicious. I took half home, and probably could've taken 2/3 home and still been full. It was, in layers from the bottom up: potatoes, ground beef with onions, bechamel, eggplant slices, arrabiata sauce. The ground beef was perfectly spiced with cinnamon and other things that I couldn't quite pick out, giving it that comfort-food-mediterranean-style richness. The bechamel was rich but not overpowering, the eggplant slices were dark and intense, and the stripe of arrabiata sauce across the top offered a piquant note to round out the mouthfeel. It came in its own 9-inch long oval ramekin with a side of flat-bread (good enough to appear homemade, certainly home seasoned). It would be a perfect dish to share with someone, or - given the nature of Wisconsin appetites - a hearty meal for one (but you will definitely be full).
The lamb shank was nicely braised and serve on the bone, so again, a large portion. The real stunner of that dish, however, were the medley of flavors in the potatoes, apples, and etc.... The potatoes and apples (green) were in equal-sized dice, perfectly roasted with just enough crispiness and sweet softness in the middle. The sauerkraut was mixed in, and not a large amount, but just enough to complement the sweetness of the apples. I'm not sure we ever really discovered the "cherry gastrique" though it may have been the drizzle of a reduction sauce around the plate that was delicious, but was relatively indistinguishable from a balsamic reduction. My companion said that the lamb, when taken with a bite of potatoes was exquisite, though it was "just a lamb shank" on its own. This also got taken home as leftovers.
We did opt for dessert, despite the fact that they don't have decaf coffee (which I usually like to have to cut the sweet). Because of the lack of coffee (I could've gotten regular, I suppose), I didn't order the baklava, and we split the chocolate mousse instead. I was less impressed than my companion, who felt that it was a perfect blend of milk chocolate and dark chocolate flavors and liked "the chewiness" of it. I enjoyed the texture, but felt the chocolate flavor was a bit too milky for me, with a hint of cocoa powder. It was, however, a good dessert, and good to split with someone (see a trend here?).
Overall, we will definitely be going back. I worry that this place will not last. While State St. has acquired numerous restaurants with entrees in this price range, it's not as high end as the dishes suggest, and I don't quite see how Opa can continue to serve such opulent portions at those prices and make it work. Maybe they can, and maybe I'm out of touch. Or maybe this is not the owner's only venture and she/he doesn't need to make a huge profit on the food, or can really make up the difference in alcohol. At any rate, while I'm cynical about its long-term chances, it's not because of the quality of the food.