Taste: Choppy Seas

Estia quite literally puts fish on a pedestal. The cavernous Greek restaurant, which faces the Academy of Music from Locust Street, packs its finny finest in ice and displays it prominently on an altar positioned halfway between the open kitchen and the dining room. During dinner hours, the imposing still life from the sea is rearranged periodically as customers step up to inspect the catch and choose something to their liking.

This project was a top-to-bottom renovation of the former Toto, more than $1 million in the making. Native Greeks Pete Pashalis, Nick Pashalis and John Lois, who have done well with their three Pietro’s Coal Oven Pizzeria restaurants in Philadelphia and Marlton, have overseen a tasteful installation of thick wooden ceiling beams, clean white walls, stone columns, woven wall hangings and antiquarian accessories. The result is a near-clone of Avra, a New York restaurant where Nick Pashalis is among the partners. Tables are generously spaced and double-draped with crisp white and blue linens, a look that’s upscale without being overly formal.

Beyond a few token meat entrées — lamb chops, chicken thigh and breast, filet mignon — Estia (pronounced “es-TEE-uh”) is all about seafood, most of it grilled, minimally adorned with lemon, olive oil, fresh herbs and capers. Specimens that Philadelphians don’t often see, such as barbouni (red mullet), fagri (Mediterranean white snapper) and fresh sardines, join the more commonplace Florida pompano, Dover sole, tuna, halibut, swordfish, and delectable langoustines, the latter priced at a breathtaking $44.95 per pound. Whole fish are filleted in the kitchen for easier eating, though they retain head and tail to make a dramatic impression at the table.

Estia’s practice of pricing whole fish by the pound isn’t as fearsome as it appears. Most of the fish weigh one pound or less, which means the price listed on the menu is very close to what you’ll pay. (If cost is an issue, ask your waiter how much your order will weigh before he puts it in.) I found the prices to be in line with the high quality of the product, and comparable to other big-scale Center City restaurants. But I do think Estia’s menu needs to explain more clearly what distinguishes one fish from another — as it reads now, nearly every offering is described as lean, moist and mild.

American-born executive chef Gus Pashalis, 26, is the son of Pete and nephew of Nick. He repeats many of Avra’s dishes here. Two of the best ones are the paper-thin, flash-fried zucchini and eggplant “chips” served with tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber dip), and a sampler of three appetizer spreads that includes tzatziki, smoky grilled eggplant, and zippy roasted red pepper with feta and a pinch of cayenne pepper, served with grilled pita bread.

Appetizers appear expensive, ranging from $9.95 for pan-fried kefalograviera cheese to $16.95 for charcoal-grilled octopus, but most are large enough for two people. The octopus, dressed with vinegar and capers, is surrounded by sweet onions and grilled Holland peppers. Tender tubes of calamari are filled to the brim with mashed Greek cheese and herbs; the squid and the filling are good, but cheese and seafood combinations never seem harmonious to me. The amount of feta on the otherwise good Greek salad is stingy, given its $11.95 price ($10.95 at lunch). The grilled sardines are large, yielding some bones even after filleting.

The most appealing main-course fish may be the lavraki, or loup de mer, with a hint of sweetness in its moist white flesh. Tsipoura, also known as royal dorado, is oilier, yet pleasant, reminding me of a just-caught bluefish. The orange-red barbouni are a striking visual, pan-fried and served whole. Their crisp skin is delicious, but the number of needle-like bones within makes it impossible to enjoy them. Swordfish grilled on skewers with peppers, onions and tomatoes is remarkably succulent. Side dishes, which must be ordered separately, include delicious potatoes pan-fried in olive oil, and “wild” greens that are actually a tame, tasty combination of boiled red and green chard, spinach and leeks, drizzled with olive oil. The greens should be served at room temperature; ours were ice-cold. Desserts are reliable versions of baklava, phyllo-wrapped custard, walnut cake, and yogurt with honey.

The front of the house is where Estia needs serious improvements. Servers need to be better-informed about the menu, and more closely attuned to the rhythms of each table. On one evening, I waited in the bar for 20 minutes after being told — erroneously — that my companions hadn’t arrived, when in fact they were seated and waiting for me. An offer to show us the fish display came after our dinners were already in progress. No one problem constituted a crisis, but with 200 seats in the dining room and 90 more in the downstairs banquet rooms, service is likely to be as critical to the future of Estia as the sweetness of its lavraki.