Good Greek food in New York is as elusive as bad Greek food is pervasive. It’s available in countless corner coffee shops in the guise of feta-and-spinach omelettes and sad slabs of spanakopita, but scarce, as disconsolate expats will tell you, in its authentic, impeccably fresh form. This is true even in Astoria, the hub of local Hellenic life, and in the formulaic fish houses that have spawned throughout Manhattan, taking the cuisine’s piscine aspect to a prohibitively pricey conclusion.
Where, then, to find affordable, exciting Greek food might be a good question for the oracle at Delphi. In her absence, we’ll enthusiastically direct you to Snack Taverna, the ambitious new offshoot of Snack, with its marked absence of Aegean blue and white, a ban on bouzouki music, and a kitchen run by a chef who hails from L.A., not Athens.
Where Snack offers home-style nightly specials and souvlaki spinoffs at lunch, Taverna walks a line between tradition and innovation. The ramshackle ghost of Shopsin’s, which famously inhabited that West Village corner for years, has been deftly exorcised, leaving behind a warm, inviting (and slightly cramped) room with plain wood tables and a measured dose of Greek décor limited to black-and-white photos of village life.
If the dining room does not scream Greece, the kitchen does, even though it’s piloted by chef John Fraser, who comes to the world of meze and moussaka via stints at the Napa Valley’s French Laundry and Paris’s Taillevent. He doesn’t mess around too much with the standard mezedes, other than to ensure they’re atypically light and fresh: a creamy tsatsiki; a smoky melitzanosalata, or eggplant spread; a pungent skordalia; and a fluffy taramosalata. The feta is barrel-aged, the tomatoes refreshingly ripe. The complimentary olives are succulent and bursting with flavor, harbingers of good things to come, like the single large, plump grape leaf stuffed with rice and herbs and sliced on the diagonal, planted not in the typical bed of wilted iceberg but instead in a thick, delectable puddle of saffron-scented almond sauce.
Fraser skillfully uses fruit as a counterpoint in a cool, earthy lentil soup drizzled with yogurt and studded with diced dates, and tames a boisterous country sausage with pear-and-fennel spoon sweet, or preserves. Dried-fig vinaigrette enhances pastourma, a spicy cured meat, and grilled summer squash, and a garnish of yellow raisins and chickpeas enlivens roasted free-range chicken.
Our panel of two reached a split decision on the potato-sheathed eggplant moussaka: One of us felt the rich béchamel and prune quenelle pushed the entrée too far into dessert territory; the other licked his plate clean. But lamb’s tongue, never an easy sell, even in Astoria, won us both over. The dish arrives at the table lightly breaded, expertly fried, and served with cranberry beans and a harissa-enchanced tomato hash.
Goat (which doesn’t get a lot of play outside Indian and Caribbean joints) is slivered into carpaccio seasoned with preserved lemon and fleur de sel, or braised and minced, wrapped in caul fat like a crépinette, and served with polenta-like trahana. The lamb stew is another great, rib-sticking dish, chock-full of artichokes, roasted tomatoes, dandelion greens, and fresh mint. And striped bass served over yellow split-pea purée shows that Fraser has the Greek predilection for fresh fish but not the country’s tendency to overcook it.
The Greek wine list is short and affordable and designed to demystify unfamiliar grapes and producers. But tumblers take the place of stemware and requests for ice buckets are cheerfully denied. It’s all in the rustic taverna spirit. So are the lush wine-poached figs with rich Manouri cheese, as simple and seductive a finale as you’re likely to find west of Corfu.