A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Mar. 6.


Congee Village - 100 Allen St., Lower East Side
Steamed vegetable dumplings, minced pork buns, rice cooked with chicken and black mushroom in bamboo pot

Waking up very hungry at noon, I stumbled out of bed, threw on some jeans and tripped down the brightly lit stretch from First Avenue to Allen Street. I knew Congee Village would be a great way of kicking off the morning and a cheap way of satiating my appetite. I've never had a bad meal there and today was no exception.

I started out with steamed vegetable dumplings, which was my least favorite of my three orders. The dough was bulletproof thick, probably thicker than any other dumpling I've had before, whereas my preference is for thinner, softer skins. The interior was better, featuring a nice combination of vegetables such as cabbage, corn, carrots and peas. It was flavorful enough to eat plain, a good thing since I didn't enjoy the accompanying dipping sauce.

The second order, the minced pork buns, were a favorite last time (see Jan. 16) and they were just as good this time. The dough was beanbag soft with a great lightly floured flavor. This is a great choice for an appetizer.

Finally, I forwent my usual order of congee to branch out and try one of their intriguing rice pots. Arriving in an attractive bamboo cask, I chose the chicken and black mushroom variety other the also interesting “two kinds of Chinese sausage.” The large mushroom caps were great and the chicken, the standard kind you’d find in something like chicken with snow peas, was also pretty tasty. Halfway through, I learned the secret to the dish is to mix all the ingredients right away. Otherwise, you’re left with chicken and mushrooms on top, rice infused with ginger in the center, and plain fried rice on the bottom. Once you mix, you get much better balanced and delicious flavor combinations, which are of course only par for the course at Congee.

Taverna Kyclades and Peasant salad

Roe dip and Calamari

Spinach pie and Kyclades' Specialty

Dinner -

Taverna Kyclades - 33-07 Ditmars Blvd., Astoria, Queens
Peasant salad, roe dip with pitas, calamari, spinach pie, Kyclades' Specialty (stuffed clams, scallops, lobster tails, shrimp and filet of sole) with lemon potatoes, galaktobouriko (complimentary), small bottle of ouzo, Greek coffee

Astoria is New York's answer to Greece. Thus, where the quest for great Greek food should lead is a no-brainer. Since Vince would marry a spinach pie if Massachusetts would only hurry up and legalize man-appetizer unions, we decided to head up to this northwest Queens neighborhood to check it out for ourselves. Taking the foodie-blasphemous approach of consulting Zagat's, we chose Taverna Kyclades because it had earned the top rating of 24.

It was a bustling scene even at the Miami retiree dinner hour of 6:30. Many families and neighborhood regulars were digging their forks into huge portions of whole fish. Waitresses who all looked like extras from My Big Fat Greek Wedding hustled between their tables and the kitchen. Everything smelled intoxicating and authentic. It felt as far from Manhattan as Athens.

We started with a peasant salad, because I couldn't forgo a taste of feta. We got more than a taste, with a tremendous block of cheese sitting center stage. The rest of the salad, almost all tomatoes and slivers of red onions, was a good simple intro.

From there, we split a variety of appetizers, namely spinach pie, roe dip and calamari, and a bottle of ouzo to make toasts. Each appetizer ranged from very good to excellent. Both the spinach pie and calamari didn't really veer from the formula in any dramatic or showy ways, but both were wonderful preparations. The cheese in the pie, the spinach and the flaky exterior were all just right. The calamari were fried the perfect amount, giving the rings' coating a nice texture. They weren't greasy or overbreaded, two fatal flaws in too many versions. But the standout was the roe dip, a ghostly pink spread that we piled onto superb steaming-hot pitas. The dip was salty and tangy in intriguing proportions, as addictively satisfying as almost any other dish I've had this year. As soon as I finished my selected piece of pita, I was already spreading the dip onto another section.

The entree, an impressive heap of assorted seafood, followed a similar formula as the appetizers. It wasn't flashy or even inventive, but simply well-done, fresh, generously portioned and well-priced. It was very good, with some of the most massive shrimp I've yet seen, although the breaded stuffing that filled the clams and covered many of the other selections, was too prevalent. Although it tasted good, it was too heavy of a flavor and overwhelmed the more important flavor of the seafood itself. Still, with lobster, shrimp, scallops, sole and clams for only $26.95, it's hard to complain. It's also a sharp reminder that Astoria prices are shockingly fair.

The lemon potatoes that went with the seafood were a rare example of Taverna Kyclades trying to be different. On first taste, I liked them and found the citrus zing a welcome surprise. Still, it was telling that of all the dishes, the potatoes was the only one that remained somewhat uneaten. While it was nice to see the restaurant stretch, a little of the side went a long way. Unlike the roe dip, it wasn't something I wanted to keep eating and eating.

As for dessert, one of the waitresses brought over two plates of galaktourobiko for us. This Greek custard in phyllo dough was good enough, although somewhat bland. Vince wanted another obsession of his, baklava, but strangely, we learned the complimentary custard was the only dessert they served. Disappointed, we reasoned that the management must prefer turning tables at this very popular restaurant rather than having people linger. Whatever the explanation though, it was a small quibble. I was already so stuffed and sated that the lack of large desserts was probably a blessing.

On our walk from the restaurant to the subway, we talked about how nice it was to get away to the outer boroughs to enjoy a real neighborhood restaurant. Tellingly, we were already talking about coming back to Astoria. With so many Greek restaurants left to try, and so many spinach pies and baklavas left for Vince to sample, it was clear that Taverna Kyclades had inspired us. Comfortable, friendly, real and tasty, it was also a perfect representative for its neighborhood. 8/10


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Kyclades review. Just a couple notes, in case I misunderstood your review: lemon potatoes in-and-of-themselves are not a departure from traditional Greek cuisine. You'll find them served all over Greece, as well as at most Greek restaurants in this country.

Also, re: the dessert issue - I found this to be true in quite a few Greek restaurants in Crete -- they don't offer baklava or other desserts on the menu. They simply provide a complimentary dessert (generally a honey-drenched cake, or yogurt with honey and fresh fruit), alongside a complimentary bottle of raki.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When we dine in Greek restaurants in Astoria, we usually walk to one of the nearby pastry shops for dessert and coffee. Get up and moving and make room for it!

8:12 PM  
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