One of several new restaurants and bars to arrive on South First Street in downtown San Jose, Nemea Greek Taverna distinguishes itself with both location and cuisine. The restaurant sits at the corner of E. San Fernando and South First streets, where E&O Trading Company used to operate. While many were sad to see the South Asian eatery close its doors in 2011, Nemea Taverna’s arrival has added a new flavor to dining options downtown.

Diners have the option of enjoying the bar and lounge area while sampling Nemea’s appetizers and cocktails, or they can continue straight to the large dining room, which is appropriately decorated with Greek pillars, vases and other Mediterranean motifs. The large open kitchen features a grill where chefs prepare grilled meat and fish specialties. Bread comes with small vessels of fragrant olive oil and assorted olives.

The restaurant’s namesake is an appellation in southern Greece. Wine of the Nemea appellation comes from the Agiorgitiko grape variety. It has a dark, fruity, velvety taste with a light body. The wine list highlights the appellation, and the Saint George Nemea ($44) makes a good accompaniment to a meal.

For starters, Nemea serves a long list of Greek appetizers, or mezethes, that are especially well suited to sharing among friends before dinner. For lunch, my companions and I enjoyed the Nemea Pikallia tasting ($13), an assortment of fresh pita, dolmathes (rice- and mint-stuffed grape leaves) and traditional Greek spreads such as taramosalata (salty roe and bread with olive oil), tirokafteri (roasted red peppers and feta) and melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant). The flavors of the Mediterranean blended beautifully in all of the spreads. My favorite, the melitzanosalata, had the wonderful smoky aroma only made possible by fire-roasting the eggplant.

The lunch entrees are relatively inexpensive. Nemea’s classic moussaka ($14) arrived bubbling in a clay dish; the perfect balance of sweet and fragrant spices of cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg complemented the rich, savory flavor of the lamb, eggplant and bechamel. The arni kokkinisto ($19), a slowly braised lamb shank in sweet, spicy tomato and onion stew, arrived on a bed of orzo sprinkled with Myzithra cheese. The sweet, tender lamb literally fell clean off the bone and was so rich that more than half became leftovers for the next meal. (Prices are higher at dinner.)

For dessert, the traditional crispy pistachio and cinnamon-filled baklava pastries, drizzled in a house-made honey and walnut sauce with a scoop of fig ice cream ($7) made for a delightfully sweet end to the meal.

Nemea Greek Taverna
96 S. First St., San Jose; 208.279.4225