We knew we were onto something good at Taverna when they served the sweet pea fritters ($9). The chef composed the plate with two eye-catching colors, yellow and green. Translucent strands of candied lemon adorned the fritter tops as they bathed in a glossy sauce made from peas.

Slicing through the middle of one revealed white feta crumbs and whole peas held together in a ball of garlicky skordalia (a potato purée). As a first bite, the dish was inviting in terms of color, taste and plating without any of the oiliness that can be characteristic of a home cook’s attempt at fritters.

William Roberts—formerly the head chef at Dio Deka in Los Gatos—runs the kitchen at Taverna. The restaurant has only been open since March, but Roberts, also a former sous chef at Michael Mina in San Francisco, has already established a convincing culinary vision. He’s acknowledging traditional Greek cuisine but refining it with present-day techniques while also nodding to the work being done in contemporary Bay Area kitchens.

From the bar where we sat, we could feel the kitchen energy crackling as it filtered through the bodies of the busy, attentive waitstaff. Each plate they brought out was charged with bold, bright flavors. Before the appetizer, they even offered us free shots of a Greek “gazpacho.” It was spinach green and tasted like a Californian’s idea of health.

Taverna sits on a busy corner across from Whole Foods. Natural light floods the white interiors, save for one accent wall painted a lighter shade of teal that’s reminiscent of the Adriatic. There are framed pictures of Greek statuary, too, but the decor doesn’t go overboard on historical or nautical kitsch. Still, seafood is an essential part of the Greek diet, so we had to try the grilled octopus ($17) and that evening’s special small plate of deep-fried sardines ($22). It felt like a risk to try the octopus, which is often chewy or underdone. But here the tentacles were charred perfectly and the meat still tender on the inside. Again, contrasting colors livened up the plate. The octopus lay scarlet on a light green fava mash while pickled ramps and capers put forward a variety of greens and an acidic tang.

The sardines were served whole, golden brown, with the head and feathery bones intact. Peeling back the breading and the bones, the flesh is darker than you remember, and it tastes pungent like the sea. You can scrape it through an aioli the color of sunflowers, squeeze a lemon wedge across the flanks or pair it on your fork with a side salad made of tomatoes, onions and parsley. In looking back at the menu, we missed the arnaki ($25), a grilled lamb chop with fried okra, and opted instead for loukaniko ($18), a savory house-made sausage served in a small steel pan with marinated peppers and aptly named gigantes beans. All tasty together, but at dinnertime since having that meal, the lamb chop with okra feels like a lost opportunity.

We also went in for the drama of a flamed saganaki ($16). It’s a cheese called kefalograviera that arrives in a cast iron pan, doused with Metaxa (a Greek brandy) and lit on fire. Melting, it held the consistency of brie but the saltier taste of Parmigiano-Reggiano. There was bread to nibble on, but it diluted the flavor of the cheese, which, along with the caramelized onions and the red pepper slivers, was strong enough to stand on its own.

As we considered desserts, we watched the chocolate olive oil cake, or sokolatina ($12), drift by on the palm of a handsome waiter and were smitten. As that temporary dream vanished across the dining room, our server charmed us into sharing the bougatsa ($11). It was the happiest decision we made that night. Described as folded phyllo, bougatsa exists in that fantastic space somewhere between a spongy crêpe and the velvetiest of Napoleons, its middle a pillowy vanilla crema. As extraordinary as it was, the homemade pistachio ice cream vaulted the dessert, and our souls, up to Mount Olympus alongside Apollo and the rest of his kind.

Taverna, with its pleasing mélange of the antique and the ultra-modern, turns Greek food nouvelle without destroying its uniquely Mediterranean soul.

800 Emerson St, Palo Alto