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Mediterranean cuisine thrives on the Beach January 12, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Greek Taste World.

The gods may be smiling on Ouzo’s Greek Taverna & Bar, which has built a solid following at a North Beach spot that the owner was warned had been ‘jinxed’ before opening in 2002.

A few years ago, Liza Hadjichristou was warned about opening a restaurant at 940 71st St., in Miami Beach. Even so, Hadjichristou went ahead with plans for Ouzo’s Greek Taverna & Bar, a cozy, fairly priced restaurant and lounge that surpassed all expectations.

”When we opened in 2002, everyone said we would fail,” she recalls. “They said the spot was jinxed, but we had three lucky breaks.”

The breaks she cites: My Big Fat Greek Wedding became the box office sleeper hit of 2002, piquing the public’s interest in everything Greek. In 2004, the Summer Olympics were held in Greece. And the breakout South Beach Diet proclaimed Greek food, with its base of olive oil and lemon juice, and omission cream and butter, was healthy.

Others might say it wasn’t just pure luck. A customer, who says he has been a regular at Ouzo’s since it opened, says what makes Ouzo’s stick is the consistently good food and excellent service. ”Liza, the owner, is always there and she is so gracious and cheerful, and she has made the whole staff in her likeness,” said, who, as vice president of operations for Chicken Kitchen chain is knowledgeable about the restaurant business. Plus, adds, the belly dancing shows on weekends are also fun. He says his favorite dish is the Pastitsio, a Greek-style lasagna made with macaroni, feta cheese and ground beef, topped with béchamel sauce.

Also popular with diners: the five lamb dishes on the menu, including the Lamb Shank (broiled and served with fresh vegetables over rice) and Baby Lamb Chops, as well as the Grilled Octopus (marinated in Greek olive oil, garlic, oregano and fresh lemon juice). The octopus is among the menu’s 18 ”Mezes”, dishes that are placed in the middle and meant to be shared. Others include the Loukaniko Greek sausage, Fried Calamari, Baked Eggplant Rolls and Grilled Quails. The spot is also vegetarian friendly, with a healthy selection of salads and dips, such as the Melitzanosalata made of eggplant, Greek olive oil and fresh garlic.

Hadjichristou, who was born in Australia and speaks English, Greek and Spanish fluently, grew up around the restaurant business. Her uncle owned a popular restaurant in Sydney, Australia. Eventually, she decided to travel the world, scoping ideas to bring back to Sydney to open her own restaurant.

”But Sydney is like New York, it’s very competitive and chances are, if you open a restaurant there, it will fail,” she explains.

Then she arrived in Miami in 1993 and decided to stay. After a marriage, a stint in the music business and a divorce, she went back to what she knew best: restaurants. In 2002, she opened Ouzo’s.

At her restaurant, pink, blue, green and yellow chairs bring a Mediterranean feel, enhanced by murals of seaside towns, rocks and Grecian landscapes. One mural depicts Anthony Quinn in his 1964 leading role as Zorba the Greek. Stay long enough and you’ll catch, not only the belly dancers on weekends, but ”Zorba dancing” or a DJ spinning world music.

Despite the lucky breaks, there were challenges to overcome because of the area’s predominantly Hispanic population. Just after Ouzo’s opened, Hadjichristou says, “people would come in and ask for arroz con pollo, until I could convince them to try something Greek. ”Now,” she adds, “they just let me order for them.”

If you’re wondering about the name, Ouzo is a popular anis-based Greek drink. ”As an excuse to drink Ouzo all day long,” Hadjichristou says with a laugh, “the Greeks say it’s both an aperitif and a digestive.”

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