Monday, November 3, 2008

Love of Strangers (Philoxenia, 32-07 34th Avenue)

We've repeatedly bemoaned the fact that neither of us really loves Greek food -- O the grand irony, living in the largest Greek expatriate community (outside of Cyprus, which doesn't really count)! Woe is us! The trial, the tribulation! But somehow, most of the occasions when we manage to steel ourselves for a Greek meal, we realize (temporarily, of course) that we've tightened our boxing gloves for no reason and the meal is serviceable, even tasty.

So we're not sure what to make of Philoxenia. Rather, we know what to make of it -- it's splendid -- we just don't know why other Greek restaurants can't just copy what they're doing. Why did it take a relative newcomer to the scene (it opened in 2004 and has been in its current location for less than a year) to prove that Greek cooking can stay true to its roots and still showcase the strong savory flavors that characterize the cuisine? It's hard to believe that none of the spate of Greek restaurants opened in the wake of the mass immigration of Greeks to Astoria in the 1960s relied on their grandmothers' home recipes (or were run by the yayas themselves), but our taste buds tell us differently. The difference between Philoxenia and its competitors is the difference between your mother's meatloaf (assuming your mama made kick-ass meatloaf) and the loaf at a trusted diner: It's not that the latter is bad; it's that the former is so good as to render the other irrelevant. In the first half of the 20th century, restaurants were a matter of economic survival for Greek immigrants, not a matter of a yearning to re-create recipes from back home. Perhaps the predominantly financial motives of those initial Greek restaurateurs prompted them to take advantage of a hearty native cuisine that's hard to get wrong while leaving the good stuff behind.

The dishes at Philoxenia aren't much different than what's available at others of its ilk. You've got your priced-per-pound fish, your salty spreads, and your charcoal grilled meats. But nothing in the description of the Greek meatballs prepares you for the ethereal oregano-laced puffs of meat encased in a crispy browned shell and drizzled with a zesty tomato sauce. They were among the best things we have ever tasted anywhere. The pork special -- chops with a savory dried fruit compote -- veered from the classic Hellenic menu but not wildly, and though its standout characteristic was the marriage of flavors, the meat was prepared with care, making us think that the straight-up pork chops would similarly please. (We'll find out in future visits.) The tomato-cucumber-olive salad was nothing special, the only mild disappointment from our leisurely dinner. Our assorted appetizers, wine, and dessert all surpassed expectations shaped by lesser restaurants. The ambiance lacked nothing, managing to be both rustic and nearly spare, with just enough kitsch-free knickknacks, tastefully displayed (and beautifully lit), to serve as a reminder of the hardscrabble roots of Greek cuisine.

We still don't love Greek cuisine, we admit. But we love Philoxenia.

Price: Entrees $13-$25; in line with other Greek restaurants but less expensive than the "occasion" spots like Akti
Will we go again? With those meatballs, need we pose the question?


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