I routinely receive emails requesting that I come to such and such restaurant for a tasting, but I usually do not accept… because a lot of times they are irrelevant to this blog (really far from the beaten path/hard to get to; too expensive for me to recommend even if it is amazing; or just plain looking for me to rave about their place without really believing in their product – yes, this happens, after I respond that if I go, I reserve the right to not post if I don’t want to, and if I do post, I will post honestly, without regard to the meal being complimentary, and the person doesn’t respond after that… well, clearly they are looking for me to LIE and say blindly they are awesome, and I don’t do that – I can’t – as my friend SpB likes to say, “Your responsibility is to the reader, not to the restaurant, I get that,” and she is absolutely correct), or just because I feel weird about accepting free food about which I write.
The thing is, as I mentioned earlier this year, I am back in school, and eating out is expensive. Even at inexpensive places, eating out routinely adds up, and I am just broke. I’ve always paid for meals/food/whatever appears here on this blog myself, out of my own pocket, money earned from what I call my ‘day job’ (unless otherwise noted – I always make sure to write clearly if something was comped, for whatever reason), and I am not complaining about doing so. This blog is a labor of love – I love to eat, and I love to talk, so why not combine the two? – but it is severely hurting my wallet now that I can no longer work OT, am paying for school, and just… yeah. I’m sorry, I’m not trying to whine about money here, I’m just trying to paint a clear picture of what is going on with the blog and why some things may seem like they’ve changed.
In any case, when I received yet another email inviting me down for a tasting – this time for Kellari’s Parea – there was something genuine about the email that I sensed. Plus it was Greek food, which I adore. Plus it was actually a place I could afford, even if I paid. Plus a friend of mine had just told me that morning that I should start accepting the invitations because why not? I’m a poor student and I should take opportunities as they come to me.
So I did.
We started off with a big basket of fluffy bread, olives (both SpB, who I invited to join me, and I liked them), salted radishes (new way to prepare them and I really liked these!), and hummus, which wasn’t on the menu (as in, you can’t get an appetizer order, or maybe you can but it’s not on the menu, which is kind of cool). The hummus was good – a touch oily and very, very smooth – but I like my hummus a little chunkier. Still, I appreciated that it was nice to munch on these items as we browsed the menu.
Eventually, we decided on a slew of appetizers.
Tzatziki with fluffy toasty pita bread. SpB noted how the bread was still fluffy, not crispy (which she’s had at some places, and does not like), and warm, and I loved the dense texture of the tzatziki. I had to ask our host what the secret was, and obviously, it’s in the yogurt. Authentic Greek yogurt, not Greek-style yogurt. Pretty amazing.
Tarama(salata), oh how I love thee. I’ve raved about this dip so many times – it’s cod roe blended with a bunch of things – and how it’s so hard to find a good version that isn’t ridiculously expensive, and is easily accessible. I’ve found that here. (The jarred version is ridiculously tinny tasting; it’s suitable/passable if I’m going to mix it with things, like pasta, but it isn’t quite what I want for straight dipping, like with pita bread.) This was also excellent, letting the tarama (cod roe) flavor shine through without being too starchy (there’s bread and potato in this dip… and it is delicious). Yum. I totally dogged this, but SpB may or may not have been allergic, so she was OK with that 😉
Here was our first ‘miss’ of the night – sort of. Stuffed grape leaves. The first one I tried was very papery dry (the leaf part) on one side, and then exploded when I bit into it, getting rice everywhere. There were pine nuts inside, and the flavorings were fine, though nothing amazing, so I was going to write these off until SpB insisted I eat another one to give it a fair shake. Fine. I tried another one, and this one’s leaf wasn’t papery/dry at all – but still exploded when I bit into it, which is the sort of thing that annoys me. Who wants rice all down their front? But SpB really liked these, commenting that the pine nuts were a great addition to the rice, which wasn’t mushy at all, and she really enjoyed the flavorings. Clearly, you will like these if your tastes run similar to hers.
Next up, grilled octopus salad. After such terrible octopus at Jaleo, I was ready to erase that memory of octopus clean out. This was excellent – the octopus was firm but tender, the way good octopus is meant to be. Seasoned properly, with peppers, onions, and assorted seasonings scattered around, both SpB and I really enjoyed this dish greatly, finishing it easily.
And meatballs! I was hoping these to be like kofte, the Turkish meatballs I’d eaten previously, but um… this is a Greek restaurant, not a Turkish restaurant, so duh! (They were called keftedes on the menu!) These were very soft, tender, almost like a Swedish meatball, slightly sweet (though SpB disagreed with me on that assessment), and really good with the gravy. Both of us liked this dish a lot as well, and it was soon gone.
“Authentic saganaki” was an addition by SpB, and boy am I glad she suggested it! Fried cheese. What’s not to like?! I was surprised it came as a slab, but with a squirt of lemon juice to cut the greasiness (it’s deep fried; that can’t be helped!), this was absolutely delicious. My eyes have been opened to saganaki… I just don’t know if anywhere else will hold up to this version, cuz it was good. Unfortunately, we wound up eating some, then moving on to eat other items, and cold, it just isn’t as good as hot, so if you order this, eat it right away. We cut off pieces to eat, and the crispness with the firm cheese, just awesome.
Our second miss of the night, the lemon potatoes. I only mark this as a miss because I personally don’t like potatoes prepared this style – big chunks like so, that aren’t fried – even fried, I don’t like steak fries or wedges all that much. Personal preference. They were fine otherwise, although the manager came over and suggested they were undercooked, I thought they were cooked properly… just not how I like my potatoes.
Horta, or mountain greens sauteed. We squeezed the lemon on liberally, and this was great, cooked till it was soft but not mushy.
After all of the above, we were pretty stuffed, even with having asked to pack some stuff to go (I haaate wasting food, and I knew I’d eat it if I took it home, so why not?) – they were very nice about this, bringing us a bag full of our leftovers fairly quickly. But our host quickly came over and commented how we hadn’t eaten any of their main courses, how we have to try two dishes: fresh fish of the day, prepared simply to showcase its awesome flavor… and their signature dish (more on that later). After hearing him describe it so passionately, and having enjoyed what came before, we both exchanged a glance as I agreed to eat some more. We were both really full by now.
SpB is allergic to fish, so I knew I’d have to take care of this myself. Initially, I took a little bit of the fish from the top right of the picture, where it looked juicy and moist – and was, but the flavor had something I didn’t like to it. I ate a little bit more. “I’m really full,” I whispered to SpB. “What do I do?” She suggested I try some flesh from the belly of the fish, knowing it should be better, and WOW am I really glad I invited her – because that was where it was at. The fish was fresh, clearly (you can see their seafood for the day on display on ice in the front; in Athens, it seemed to be very popular for restaurants to have displays of their fresh fish from which you could choose your dinner), but the intensity of this really smacked in the belly area. Delicious. I was still too full to finish the dish, but I did take the rest home and ate it the next day for lunch. A squeeze of lemon was all it needed – it didn’t even need it, but I used it cuz I love lemon – and it was great. Yummy! I was really glad at this point that our host had insisted we eat more!
And then we got to their true signature dish, titled Yesterday’s Lamb – so titled not because it’s leftovers, but because it takes 24 hours to cook! Whoa! I note here that SpB does NOT like or usually eat lamb – much like my aversion to eating rabbit (though I will, if the circumstances are right); we identify with these animals for our own personal reasons – but she decided to try it to be fair. First of all… the lamb was super tender, with a gentle flavoring to it. It practically melted in my mouth; and gamey? Not gamey at all! It was really delicious and I was even more glad our host had insisted upon us trying this dish. We took half of it home, and I gave it to SpB, who… liked this dish. This is a big deal. She doesn’t usually eat lamb, nor does she even like it if she does. I am trying to emphasize to you how good it was.
A side of grilled asparagus; you can’t go wrong with that! Well, it was cooked properly, anyway, with a good snap to it. Sorry for not fixing that stray piece before I took the picture.
After we’d decided that no, we really could not eat any more, so no dessert for us, thank you, they gave us a plate of little cookies. We tried all of them, and each had our favorites, but you’re going to have to try them yourselves to find yours. 😉 The cookies come at the end of every meal.
So, what do I have to say about the food? Overall, it was a great meal. I could tell you about the service we received, but they knew who I was and you’d probably think they were nicer to me on purpose so I’d say nice things… so instead, I’ll tell you about the service the tables around us received. The waitstaff was courteous, didn’t ignore anyone, and everyone around us seemed very happy. Perhaps they appeared at our table a little bit more often than at other tables, but I saw them doing what they are supposed to: filling water, taking orders, smiling, explaining things, and in general, being good waitstaff.
In the end, I was happy that I’d finally accepted a tasting, if only because it led me to discover a great Greek restaurant in NYC – and there are a LOT of places to try, all the time, sometimes it’s hard to find a good one – but also because it led me to realize, I can’t lie about what I eat. I didn’t like the grape leaves, or the potatoes, and wouldn’t order those again. I don’t think I’ll ever lie about what I thought about whatever I eat… it just isn’t me.
Yvo says: SpB said she’d definitely return and even take clients there for a business meal. I found the prices reasonable – inexpensive, even – and would definitely return for some more delicious Greek food. The place has very high ceilings, which gives it a large, open feel, and the food is definitely worth repeat visits, a designation I don’t bestow lightly. When I return, I will definitely be ordering the tarama… yum! and many of the same appetizers from above. I think I might try some new entrees though, just to shake things up. Good stuff, inexpensive, and convenient location just north of Union Square. And… a certain someone’s apartment 😉 (not me… someone famous)
36 E. 20th Street
As noted, our entire meal was comp’ed, but this in no way impacted my opinion – the food was good, plain and simple. I was under no obligation to post anything, much less post a positive write-up, but I understand if this makes you hesitate. Don’t let it. Go see for yourself what it’s like. Seriously, my positive opinion cannot be bought, unless you are Ferrarri, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche… or things like that which won’t get posted on my blog anyway, but if you want to send me a free car, I’ll totally tell all of my friends and family how awesome your vehicles are. Hah. But seriously. I’m not for sale. Thanks.