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BASILA'S

When I asked my Greek Aunt Bette what was the literal translation of the expression "oopa," she nonchalantly replied: "Your cheese is on fire."

Of course "oopa" is the Greek word for the exhuberence that is shouted at Greek restaurants around the world as the flaming cheese appetizer, saganaki, is being served. Not only does it signal the beginning of a festive meal, like our recent dinner at Basila's in St. George, but it might also serve as a warning to run for cover. One of the waitresses almost lost her eyebrows while helping serve a flaming plate of this delightful Greek specialty.While the cheese at Basila's is lappi, from Finland, rather than the more traditional kasseri cheese, the spectacle was just as festive as was our overall experience at this wonderful restaurant in St. George's Ancestor Square.

Opened in December, Basila's has already earned itself a highly regarded reputation in a part of the state known more for meat and potatoes than smoked salmon ravioli and dolmathes. As we were trying to find the entrance (it is best approached from the north side of the square), a couple heading out of an adjacent eatery with a pizza to go pointed us in the right direction and exclaimed, "It's the best place in town."

And we would heartily concur.

From the delicate aromatic egg lemon rosemary soup (unlike other thicker versions of avgolemono) to the slightly sweet saffron almond rice that came with two of our entrees, each item had a distinctly understated yet appetizing flavor.

The basil cream sauce with the ravioli ($10.95) reflected this careful use of seasonings. A little more boldness was apparent with the skewered chunks of tenderloin on the shish kabob ($9.95), something the tender loin lamb chops ($15.95) could have used. But this was a minor distraction.

In addition to the saganaki appetizer, we enjoyed the hommus tahini ($4.50), a coarsely ground dip of sesame tahini, garbanzos, seasoned with garlic and blended with olive oil. The two dolmathes were also expertly prepared, though for $4.75 we thought a little overpriced.

The Mediterranean salad that came with the entrees had a nicely balanced oil and vinegar dressing, mild feta cheese and tender Greek olives which topped off the mix of crisp greens. We will try the mandarin orange salad with almonds and dates on another visit.

Other dinner entrees include spinach pie ($4.75); kota or skewered boneless chicken ($8.95); souvlaki with marinated pork ($8.95); cheese ravioli ($8.95); linguine with Greek sausage and fresh tomato sauce ($7.95) and Alaskan king salmon ($12.95).

The baklava was very good; but we found the generous custard bread pudding, complete with scalded milk and cinnamon (both $2.25) a more fitting close to our festive meal.Rating: * * * *

Basila's Greek Cafe, Two West St. George Blvd. (Ancestor Square), St. George. 673-7671. Open for lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Dinner served from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. Accepts major credit cards and in-state check with guarantee card. Reservations recommended for weekends.