A Year In Food

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Jul. 19.




Dinner -

Philoxenia - 26-18 23rd Ave., Astoria, Queens
Taramosalata (roe dip), Feta cheese special, Spanakopitakia (spinach pies), Traditional Greek-style meatballs with garlic and cumin in tomato sauce, Greek yogurt with grapes and honey (complimentary), a glass of house red wine
$22

There are more Greeks living in Astoria than anywhere else outside of Greece. It’s a stunning statistic but it makes sense almost as soon as you step off the R train. The honeyed scent of baklava is redolent in the air. Tavernas and fish markets dot every street. Blue and white flags flag proudly in the wind. Strains of sweet, elongated words pore out of modest homes and family-run stores.

Basking in this atmosphere is the best preparation for Philoxenia, a warm, inviting restaurant occupying the lower level of a two-floor house. As Alex, Vince and I entered, the waiters happily greeted us, eager to project as much of the eponymous philoxenia, or hospitality, as they can. Even more excited to see us was owner-hostess-chef Dionysia Germani, whose thick accent and reverence for the food is immediately charming.

She tried to offer recommendations but it was soon clear she loves everything on the fairly traditional menu. Hedging our bets, the three of us decided to start by splitting three appetizers. Since Vince was there, the taramosalata, or roe dip, was a must. We also got the Feta cheese special and the spanakopitakia, or spinach pies, another given around my Greek-obsessed friend.

Starting out, the pale pink roe dip was a strange surprise. Namely, it didn’t taste much like roe, a plus for the fish egg-phobic Alex but a disappointment for me. I did like the lightness of the spread and the salty, tangy flavor of it, but it really should’ve been fishier. The Feta cheese was better, coming baked in aluminum foil and topped with peppers, olives and tomatoes. It smelled like a Supreme pizza, and the vegetables and spices added a distinctive and new flavor to the familiar cheese. Finally, the spinach pies, my favorite of the three, were flaky and delicious. They weren’t exciting or reinvented – just a very well-prepared version of a classic Greek appetizer.

For my entrée, I had the traditional meatballs, which came in a pizza-like tomato sauce. I enjoyed the spices in the meat particularly, and enjoyed the dish overall. Still, it didn’t wow me like I'd hoped and it wasn’t something I’d feel compelled to get again. I did enjoy the option of my $2.50 glass of the house red though, which was barely alcoholic but made the dinner more fun. I also appreciated the complimentary dessert of Greek yogurt with grapes and honey at the end, another thoughtful touch that made for a light and tasty finale.

Interestingly though, for all of Philoxenia’s emphasis on hominess, the service was oddly bad. Everyone was very friendly, but the mistakes were rife. I was first brought white wine instead of red. Our Feta cheese special had to be reordered. Vince received rice instead of French fries. His replacement French fries weren’t brought out until he'd already finished eating his chicken souvlaki. With only two or three other tables occupied at the time, the constant errors just seemed sloppy.

Still, it’s hard to hold something like that against a place as charming as Philoxenia. It’s so friendly and earnest that I couldn’t help but smile and enjoy. It tries so hard to please, I forgot at times I wasn’t eating in someone’s home. Not all of the food was amazing, but it was all well worth the price and the trip. But of course, around here, that's no surprise. In Astoria, warm greetings and food cooked with love are just the Greek way. 7/10

Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice finds Philoxenia charming in November 2004

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