by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
July 30, 2007
I’ve lived on islands all my life (Taiwan, Hawaii, Japan, Manhattan), so maybe that’s why my favorite color is blue. I am naturally drawn to the blues of the sea and their infinite variations. On my trip to Greece this month, I was amazed by the constant deep indigo of the Aegean Sea, and the way it melded with the striking azure of the cloudless sky.
In Mykonos, while the steady wind kept the ocean water in a state of constant motion, I couldn’t help but wonder what Odysseus’s seven-year journey was really like. I’ve always loved Greek mythology, as well as the epic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and marveled at the uniquely advanced architecture and symbolism of the Parthenon, so it was spiritually and intellectually rewarding to finally get the chance to visit the land of these gods.
In real life, not everything was as picture perfect as in my imagination. The Acropolis was on strike the weekend I visited Athens, so I settled for the satisfaction of catching spectacular views of the Parthenon from afar, both during meals at restaurants and from the balcony of my hotel room.
In Mykonos, the food was a bit disappointing, so the surrounding beauty of the island and the ocean had to compensate for the sub-par cuisine. In the photo above, I had hoped to capture the emptiness of the restaurant where I had my least satisfactory meal. But upon reviewing the shot, which also captures the surrounding beauty and backdrop of the eatery, I realized I had little to complain about.
While in Greece and upon my return, I thought about how many Greek restaurants are in the City, and marveled at how many of them are actually good! A dining experience in New York is of course not the same as one in Greece, and we don’t have the jewel tones of the Aegean to distract from inferior fare, but we are very fortunate to have a range of high-caliber Greek restaurants, rustic, nouveau and high-end, here in New York City. This month, I’ll share with you some of the Athenian cravings my trip inspired, as well as some Greek cravings that can be sated locally.
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
July 30, 2007
CRAVINGS IN ATHENS
History, breathtaking scenery and architecture aside, I am still a food critic, and the absolute highlight of my trip to Greece was my meal at To Kafenio. Unfortunately, it was my last day in Athens, but had I known how good it was, I would have come every day! This little Greek taverna in the charming and posh area of Kolonaki serves simple but elegant home-style cooking. Everything about To Kafenio is classic, down to the congenial older waiter who was thrilled to give his personal recommendations. The house salad is to die for: finely diced zucchini, artichokes, mushrooms, green beans, onions, dill and scallions in a light lemon dressing. I was entranced by the purity and goodness of these ingredients, from the moment the salad arrived until it was all devoured. The grape vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice with egg lemon sauce was scrumptious served hot. And even though I’m not a devotee of spinach pie, I must admit that it was delicious, too. Finally, the meatballs stewed with tomatoes over rice hit the spot like nothing else I ate on the trip did. At this point, I would already have declared it the best meal in Athens, but the walnut cake dessert made my life even sweeter!
Reputed to have some of the freshest seafood in town, Papadakis is currently considered one of the top restaurants in Athens. The interior of the restaurant is bright and warm, with a modern atmosphere, and the effect extends to the menu, on which every dish looks cheerful and promising. I jumped at the chance to try the langoustines in oil and lemon vinaigrette with langoustine roe, and it was my favorite dish of the meal: small pieces of cooked and deshelled langoustines soaking in the oil and lemon vinaigrette with langoustine roe sprinkled all over. The octopus is Papadakis’s signature dish, slow cooked in a sweet Santorini wine called Vinanto and honey, with sun-dried tomatoes, served over a bed of fried potato curls. The combination of flavors and textures were unexpected, but wonderful together: the octopus is tender and only slightly sweet, while the potatoes add a contrasting crunch. Sea urchin salad is a staple in Greece to which I quickly became accustomed and had to order wherever I could. To call it a salad is misleading; it’s fresh raw sea urchin in olive oil that is eaten with bread and a drizzle of lemon. This clean and simple preparation makes the complex flavor of the urchin easy to appreciate. The main course, unfortunately, did not live up to the high standard set by the starters. I tried the spaghetti with Trikalinos bottarga (cured and pressed fish roe) and olive oil, which was actually linguine with a cream sauce that was too rich to complement the bitterness and dryness of the chunks of bottarga. Papadakis is at the corner of Voukourestio and Fokylidou streets, which places it essentially at the top of a hill. At that very intersection, you have one of Athen’s most remarkable views of the Acropolis, an awe-inspiring complement to any meal!
The souvlaki at Thanasis was my very first meal in Athens, and it was one of the most satisfying for being so inexpensive. Their famous kebabs are made from marinated lamb and beef, and are good as takeout or as a sit-down meal at one of their sidewalk tables. I’d recommend ordering the souvlaki on pita with fresh onions and tzatziki (yogurt and garlic sauce), best accompanied by a Mythos (Greek beer) and some fries. The meat is tender and juicy, and reminded me how unfortunate it is that I have not tasted any street cart kebabs in New York City nearly as good. Thanasis is located on one of the busiest main streets in the tourist-filled area of Monostiraki, so it is crowded and loud, but a worthwhile experience.
by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
July 30, 2007
Greek Cravings in New York City
34-21 34th Ave
@ 34th St
S’agapo not only has great home-style cooking, but it also has charm, as the mission of owners Kostas and Barbara Lambrakis is to make you feel as if you are dining in their home. Located on the border of Long Island City and Astoria, S’agapo features delicious traditional Cretan cuisine. The pikilia orektikon (an assortment of all their spreads) is definitely worth sampling. In addition to the usual tzatziki and skordalia, there are some traditional Cretan dips like beets, hummus and parsley, which they manage to make truly memorable. The menu is extensive and everything is good, from Cretan sausages, fried cheeses, classic meatballs, stuffed cabbage, to fresh grilled fish, but what really stands out in my memory is the kalitsounia (lightly fried traditional Cretan cheese & mint dumplings served w/ clover honey). I’m always wary of fried dumplings because they are often too greasy, or have the wrong proportion of dough to filling. These dumplings are near perfect. The Cretan cheese is soft and tastes like ricotta, and the clover honey adds just the right touch of sweetness to this ideal appetizer!
105 Thompson St
(Prince & Spring St)
Before Snack Taverna in the West Village, there was Snack, a discreet tiny sliver of a restaurant on Thompson Street. This is one of my favorite lunch spots, which I visit especially for the tasty salads and sandwiches. Snack also serves cold and hot mezedes, savory pies and entrées; an amazing variety of food for such a small kitchen. The star item on the menu is the lamb sandwich, lamb 1.3. (all of the sandwiches are named in this way, by meat or method of cooking, and a number.) Juicy pieces of braised lamb are served on ciabatta with roasted red onions, tomatoes, arugula and a homemade roasted tomato aioli sauce. The lamb and tomato aioli are like lost lovers reunited at last, while the rest of the flavors do their parts in supporting roles, so that all work in unison to create a succulent sandwich. Did I just say succulent sandwich?! Well, it is!
35 W 20th St
(5th & 6th Ave)
When a restaurant has one truly outstanding dish on the menu, it often overshadows everything else. Yes, I’m talking about the octopus at Periyali. The oktapodi sharas (octopus in red wine marinade over charcoal) is shockingly excellent. I’ve had my fair share of octopus this past month, and I now cringe a little whenever an eating companion says, “I love octopus!” But Periyali’s octopus is an indelible food memory: three gorgeous octopus arms, each with the perfect crisp texture on the outside which, once bit into, reveal perfectly tender, juicy meat inside. Even after a little cooling, it never loses its consistency (having octopus turn rubbery mid-meal is the worst). Naturally, this dish inspired a strong craving!
141 E 48th St
(Lexington & 3rd Ave)
Of all the great Greek restaurants in town, Avra is my favorite for a refined and indulgent Greek dining experience. Call me predictable, but I love their plaki (oven baked Chilean sea bass with vidalia onions, tomato and herbs). The Chilean sea bass tastes like butter and the rustic flavors of the onions, tomatoes and herbs sublimely infuse themselves into the fish while in the oven. It’s both comfort food and decadence!
128 E 7th St
(1st Ave & Ave A)
Pylos is a lovely Greek haven in the East Village. The interior is extremely soothing, with blue and white walls that recall the style of the Greek islands, and rustic clay pots hanging from the ceiling. From the looks of the restaurant, one would hardly expect it to be rustic, as the interior emulates “trendy” more than “homey.” But the food speaks for itself: from the beet salad to the fresh grilled dorado to the dessert of yogurt with sour cherry, honey and walnut, everything tastes fresh, clean and pure. If only they had tables big enough to hold all the dishes I ordered, and if only the waiters were less eager to clear plates off the table any and every chance they got. If I’m still eating, I want to be left alone!
36 W 52nd St
(5th & 6th Ave)
While most Greek restaurants in the City are serving traditional Greek fare, Michael Psilakis’s high-end Anthos creates nouveau or modern Aegean cuisine which is both fun and delicious. Perhaps Psilakis does not incline towards the traditional because he is a self-taught chef; he instead endeavors to create modern cuisine using traditionally Greek ingredients. The prices are steep but there is a $28 three-course prix-fixe lunch menu that will give you a good taste of some of the first innovative and successful contemporary Greek cuisine to come out of New York.
871 7th Ave
(55th & 56th St)
Molyvos is a huge Greek taverna close to Carnegie Hall, offering both light meals of meze at the front of the restaurant and fine dining in the rear dining room. I recommend getting drinks and ordering from the meze menu, even as lunch or dinner. The mezedes are perfect sized tapas, allowing one to sample a wide variety of snacks. Molyvos is a refreshing option for those nights after a performance at Carnegie Hall when one is tired of Burger Joint and Yakitori Totto.