Oom-pah! Haute Greek Eats in the Big Apple and Beyond

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Craving some haute-licious Greek food? If your plans won’t be including traveling abroad this year, no worries! New York City and its surrounding regions are notorious for having a number of lovely upscale Greek restaurants to choose from. Many specialize in a particular type of Greek fare such as fresh Greek seafood dishes, while others are celebrated for their award winning traditional food and wine pairings, not to mention their long standing top notch reputations. Here’s why: As we know, this metropolis and its outskirts are home to a collage of ethnicities. It should come as no surprise therefore, that the area offers some of the most authentic and brilliant Greek restaurants in the country.
It’s all Greek to me…. or is it?

So how does one separate out the true culinary Greek giants from the knock offs? Like a genuine Dooney and Bourke designer handbag, it’s all about authenticity. While many Greek restaurants will offer such popular favorites as spanikopita, souvlaki, and baklava, there is a flavor and presentation difference found in the real Greek spots. Why not let your senses do the convincing? Peruse your local options and when the spirit moves you, go visit. Take in the smells– the ambiance– the taste. A good Greek restaurant should be able to stand by its ingredients and vouch for their freshness and quality Finally, while traditional favorites are well and good, look out for Chef’s who aren’t afraid to take their old school preparations to the next creative level.

Thalassa for example, an award winning Greek restaurant in Tribeca, illustrates this and more. Fashioned after a restored sailboat via white sails overhead, wood plank floors and a vast marble bar, it stands as one of the most frequented Greek restaurants in New York. Fresh fish served here regularly playfully jives with the décor, with dishes such as lemon snapper fillet with trahana and asparagus. For those who shy away from seafood, try their lamb shank braised in a St. George wine sauce. It’s exceptional. A variety of pleasing appetizers lead the menu, such as the horiatiki salad made from tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and imported feta cheese.

The wine list on hand exceeds expectations with 5,000 bottles in their cellar, allowing for perfect pairings. Another fabulous spot is Barbounia restaurant. Located right on the renowned posh Park Avenue, upon entering you’ll be met with the same level of polish and charm indoors as on the streets of the upper eastside, ala gigantic white Grecian columns complimented by deep azure blue chairs, all situated in a lofty dining space. Greek cuisine here mingles subtly with Turkish and Italian influences, such as their citrus marinated salmon with tomato confit, fennel, swiss chard and sorrel sauce; fresh and satisfying. Another favorite among locals in the know is Ammos, a chic Greek eatery in the theater district. An impressive two story wall of wine, complimented by suspended umbrellas and authentic pillars, tastefully surround the space. Try their grilled octopus salad with shaved fennel, arugula and red wine vinegar or the keftedes saltsa, a satisfying baked meatball dish served on risotto. Treat yourself to a sweet at the end of your meal with a dish of their imported greek yogurt with candied fruits. Pure confectionary magic.

In the mood to linger a while longer? Every Saturday at Ammos, a live Greek band fills the house with colorful ethnic music. Enjoy a glass of ouzo (an anise-flavored Greek aperitif) and sing along with the band. Estiatorio is another Manhattan spot, found on the west side of the city, with bragging rights to show for their efforts, including a recent Zagat rating of “extraordinary to perfection”. The menu begins with a variety of Greek appetizers such as their Milos special, layers of thinly sliced zucchini, eggplant and saganaki cheese, lightly fried. For something special, each day the restaurant offers a different whole fish, roasted in the Greek style, all fresh catch of the day options. Periyali, another choice in the flatiron district has been around since the 80’s with superb starters such as the lemony avgolemono soup, and featured entrées such as classic mousaka and souvlaki. Among the selections on the wine list are more than 25 Greek reds and whites.

Care to venture a bit out of the Big Apple? Limani in the Roslyn section of Long Island New York serves fare that holds itself formidable to its Manhattan constituents. Signature dishes such as their octopus Tunisia; a grilled sushi quality octopus or their tomato salad, the authentic Greek salad make this so. Also the Limani Sampler, a chef’s choice treasure trove of seafood favorites brimming with fresh oysters, top neck clams, shrimp, Maryland crab meat, mussels and Maine lobster is a hit amongst regulars and for desert? The homemade yogurt with Greek thyme honey and almonds is a dreamy option and tops off the meal with a perfect balance of sweet and rich. Axia Taverna is another neighboring choice located right next door to the city, over the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey. Here you can relax and enjoy a casual vibe but at the same time, maintain elegance via its sleek, modern interior. Executive Chef Alex Gorant modernizes the typical dining experience by grouping dishes into Small Plates and Big Plates, allowing you the option of anything from a light bite to a full blown multi course meal. Sommelier chosen Greek vintage wines accommodate superb pairings here as well. Be Greek for a Day!

Finally, no piece would stand complete without mention of the Astoria section of Queens. Known for its large Greek population, this neighborhood doesn’t lack for dining spots, but because of the enormous inventory, selecting the best bet choice can become a daunting task. Mezzo Mezzo puts that to bed, being a place that is not so much about the going out to eat part, but more about being Greek, if even just for a vicarious moment. Headed by Charlie Kourakos, who grew up in Sparta and dreamed of opening a restaurant when just a little boy, I learned that discussing the meal being eaten is as important as eating it. Typically, Kourakos can be found in the restaurant’s kitchen, supervising the preparation of the vast array of menu items. The day of my visit was no exception, as he escorted me to the bustling grilling station, which is just down the corridor from the main dining room. There, I watched as two industrious Greek chefs tag-teamed behind the grill, the foods filling the air with earthy wood chip-infused charcoal.

“All the cooking is done quickly and freshly, from grill to plate,” Kourakos said. The whole red snapper — to be tasted later — is first prepared in the neighboring kitchen.
After it is finished being marinated in oil and spices, it is rushed over to the grill for finishing. This method offers authentic traditional Greek food with a basic cooking method simple enough to try at home yourself. It’s also perfectly suited for the outdoor barbecue.

I started with an octopus appetizer, marinated in a velvety virgin olive oil, vinegar and herbal bath, then boiled and seared to perfection on the grill.
Next was served a trio of crab cakes, accompanied by tartar sauce for dipping and set atop a healthy-sized bounty of sautéed vegetables. Finally, I am treated to the aforementioned whole red snapper, chivalrously deboned by my friendly waiter Amir. Greek baklava finishes off my meal with simple sweet bliss.

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