Petros Kafe, El Segundo – Greek, No Compromises
Successful market research can take two forms: find out what you can do that fits the needs of a community, or find a community that wants what you are determined to give them. Both can be successful, and each has its own risk. Pander too much to local taste, you risk losing whatever is special about your enterprise; be inflexible and wrong about what the area wants, you are in trouble.
Petros Benekos has restaurants with almost identical menus in Manhattan Beach, Santa Barbara, and the Santa Ynez wine country, all just called Petros. When I heard he planned to open Petros Kafe in a former bakery in El Segundo, it sounded brilliant: a streamlined, simpler, less expensive Greek restaurant would be a perfect fit for the lunch crowd. The fact that the bakery would continue operating seemed to confirm this, and I looked forward to a stream of the delicious Greek pastries I knew from experiences in that country.
I was therefore quite surprised on my first visit: the menu was very similar and just as upscale as his other restaurants, despite the more casual-sounding name. There are differences – some of the more upscale dinner items aren’t offered here, and there are a few extra sandwiches at lunch. That aside, the cool, modern style is a sharp contrast to the more dated or utilitarian restaurants that dominate Downtown.
Our first visit was for brunch, at a table by the window where we could enjoy the peaceful small-town streetscape. The bakery is still in operation, and the first thing to arrive at our table, a basket of warm bread, showed that someone knows how to run it. The olive bread was very good, the sesame bread fantastic – I tried to buy a loaf of each but was told that at this time they’re not selling it.
A glass of sparkling wine with berries added a sophisticated note while we perused the menu. We decided to share an arugula salad and an appetizer combo – baked feta cheese crusted with sesame and topped with raisins, shrimp in tomato sauce, and the fried cheese called saganaki. The combo had a wonderful mix of flavors but was small for a party of four; a bite of each item to tease the senses, which is what an appetizer is supposed to do. The arugula salad was a bit more substantial and quite unusual; the slightly bitter green was paired with roasted tomatoes, a drizzle off honey, and a dusting of grated Greek cheese that is similar to a mild Parmesan. There was sweetness from the tomatoes and honey to balance the greens and mild vinaigrette, SO even someone who usually doesn’t like arugula fancied it.
Another salad that is often offered is a watermelon, tomato, mint, and cheese salad, one of those rare items that remind you tomatoes are a fruit. It almost always appears on the menu but is only available when they can get fresh enough products, as it should be. For those who like greens but are less adventurous, Petros Kafe also offers an excellent shrimp, avocado, and vegetable salad; and a Greek salad that can be used as a benchmark. Soups are offered too, vegetarian lentil or vegetable-bean or avgolemono, the hearty chicken stock, lemon, and rice soup that is a national dish. I’ve tried all three and was surprised to prefer the vegetable bean, which is a find light meal.
Like most places in Downtown, Petros Kafe woos the business lunch crowd with a selection of sandwiches and quick-serve items. These include an array of sandwiches, “Petros Bowls,” (salads topped with chicken or salmon), pizzas, and burgers in the standard American style or with Greek spices. I tend to gravitate toward the pizzas, which have a thin freshly made crust and Greek toppings. Greek cheeses don’t melt the way Italian cheeses do, and the sauce is less highly seasoned, so the effect is somewhat different from the usual. It is worth noting that the cheese on a pizza usually helps the ingredients stick to the crust, so you should take care to not spill into your lap if you pick up pizza to eat it.
Sandwiches are made with that excellent olive bread, and the best I’ve tried is the braised lamb shoulder with caramelized onions. The chicken in pita bread with homemade tzatziki sauce is also usually very good, though it was strangely dry on one visit. When I pointed this out to our server she offered to have another made, which was good customer service.
Specials are also offered, and on a recent afternoon we were happy to see Greek-style rack of lamb with french fries. The fries were crisp and lightly dusted with herbs, and the five small chops were delicious. We were less pleased when the bill came – I had neglected to ask the price figuring that it would be in line with the other entrees, but were surprised when it was $28.00. Since most entrees here were between $14 and $20, it would have been nice if the server had let us know, or the sign had included the price.
Petros Kafe has a very good wine list with premium Greek wines, a decent beer selection, and can dish out powerful coffee that will keep those brain cells humming along. They don’t serve liquor, so shots of ouzo after dinner are out, but there are desserts that include freshly made doughnuts to finish the meal.
Petros Kafe is a bet that El Segundo residents and visitors will warm to an upscale but casual environment, and it seems to be succeeding; on my most recent visit the place was two-thirds full despite the fact that we were dining relatively late. Our server mentioned that some new items would soon be added to the menu, so one of the most sophisticated menus in town may become even more so. Locals may not yet be ready for the beet and octopus with oregano sauce served in Manhattan Beach, but the day will surely come.
Petros Kafe is at 131 Grand Avenue in El Segundo, just west of Main. Open 11 am – 11 pm Su-Thu, 11 am-midnight Fr-Sa. Parking in adjacent structure, wheelchair access good, some vegetarian/vegan items. Cork age $15, beer and wine served. No online menu, phone 310-322-6200.