Sunday, August 3, 2008

Dry-Erase Dining (Akti, 34-19 30th Avenue)

Astoria has many Greek seafood restaurants, and it can be hard to keep them straight. We're a bit overwhelmed by them, actually, and have been dragging our heels on trying them. How do you pick one when there are so many? Before we ate at Akti, which opened in March, we knew it as the one with a waterfall sculpture -- a thin plate of illuminated glass with water coursing through it -- positioned prominently in the front. At night, when the restaurant is closed, there is something melancholy about the waterfall; turned off, with the unlit water puddled at the bottom, the sculpture becomes just a window without a wall, a porthole onto nothingness.

Inside Akti there were more aesthetic touches -- some nautically themed objects decorated the walls, like captain's wheel and what looked like a stunted oar, as well as a stucco rectangle with a neon glow hanging up behind the bar. The architectural detail, too, demands comment. The roof is paneled with bamboo stalks and the pilasters look as if they are barnacled with small white stones. The sum effect of all these niceties is hard to articulate; the atmosphere seems vaguely elegant and distinctive though you might be embarrassed to admit you felt that way.

The most peculiar thing about Akti is its procedure for ordering. Each table receives one menu (what is it with Greek restaurants and menus? Elias Corner won't even deign to give you one) and then each diner marks what they want directly on it with a dry-erase marker. Inevitably, this leads to some discussion of sharing items and requires coming to an explicit consensus. It makes the negotiations of any meal much more definitive, which may or may not be a benefit, depending on how effective you are at getting to yes. Sipping wine and munching down grilled pita slices, we managed to to come to terms with each other.

Our waiter thoughtfully gave us advice about how much to order -- one entree and a few appetizers for both of us -- and we took his advice and got grilled swordfish, a beet salad, and a delicious grilled haloumi appetizer (a mellow cheese grilled and placed on a tomato slice and pita). Everything tasted good. The beets were earthy and the fish was fishy, etc., but nothing struck as absolutely outstanding. What was better than ordinary was the attentive and unpretentious service, which was far more down to earth than the decor would lead you to expect. Everyone seemed at ease with what they were doing. A man who seemed to be the owner came by our table several times with encouraging comments, and it never felt uncomfortable or intrusive. When we were finished, the bartender brought out slices of watermelon for dessert.

When we were through at Akti, we left wondering why we are so resistant to try such places. The experience was effortlessly pleasant, enough to make you forget the elaborate effort that went into the design. The next time we pass the sad waterfall, it will probably seem less a symbol of Akti's trying to hard and more like the corny indulgence of friend whose vainly searching for a dignified way to express his effusiveness.

Price: If you order as you should -- appetizers, shared entree, wine -- it's about $100 per couple. That's on par with the other Greek restaurants nearby, and worth it.
Will we go again? We would if there weren't so many others of its type that we need to try.

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