Monday, September 8, 2008

Family Style (Zenon Taverna; 34-10 31st Avenue)

The menu at Zenon, a homey Cypriot place waitstaffed by the owners' daughters with homespun folk-artish frescos on the walls, is loaded with tapas-style appetizers, so we held off eating here until we could coax some Guest Diners into joining us for mezedes. Each person pays $19, and then waves of small dishes are brought out. There are three combo options: the Cyprus meal, the fish meal, and surprisingly enough, the vegetarian meal. Zenon is probably the only taverna in Astoria that's thinking about that demographic, though they haven't entirely figured it out -- the vegetarian meal includes fish.

We ordered some wine (all the selections are Greek; we had retsina) and deliberated over our options. Thankfully, our waitress cooperatively permitted us to go with a combination of the Cyprus and vegetarian meals. Then the food came out in waves. First they came with the cold appetizers -- mostly dips for the grilled pita: tzatziki, scordalia, tahini. There was also beet salad, a seafood salad, potato salad, and a Cyprus salad (basically a Greek salad with feta and olives). All of these were solid if unremarkable; what was notable was the sheer quantity and variety of food on the table. There wasn't room for it all, and the meal quickly became a delicate dance of plate passing and polite requests.

With all that food out, it was easy to forget that a second wave was coming. These were the hot dishes: calamari, grilled halloumi, two kinds of meatballs (keftedes and sheftalia), some sausages, and quail. This was all delicious stuff, but we did not pace ourselves well and were mostly too full to really enjoy it. We started to feel a little sheepish about how much we would probably leave behind, though we felt comfortable enough at our table to tarry until we finished most of it.

Our multiple but infrequent visits to Zenon always find us saying that we should order more casual meals from them -- drop in for a gyro or souvlaki. Somehow, though, we never do. The meats are all prepared well enough for us to trust that a gyro would be worthwhile, but there's something about the rustic, cozy atmosphere atmosphere that makes us feel like we're doing the whole idea of Zenon wrong by stopping by for a to-go bag. The wooden beams hold a sort of energy that Aliada, the nearest Cypriot competitor, might mimic now but won't be able to achieve for another twenty years or so. They invite you to linger, eat more food than you maybe want, drink more retsina out of a ceramic pitcher. They invite you to stay.

Price: Entrees $13-$20; mezedes, $19 per person.
Will we go again? We say we should go more often but will probably only follow through on special occasions.

Old-School (Omonia Café; 32-20 Broadway)

We had time to kill before a movie, so we decided to do something we had been putting off and pay our obligatory visit to Omonia for the purposes of this blog. Perhaps the most quintessential of the dessert-and-coffee Euro cafes in the neighborhood, Omonia is actually pretty staid relative to the scene on 30th Avenue. The requisite ambient techno isn't blasting, and the neon backlighting is kept to a minimum. On the night we went, Tropical Storm Hanna was threatening outside and the humidity outside was extreme, so the window wall beside our table on Omonia's outer perimeter was sweating and the view to the street streaked and foggy. The curtailed visibility was probably hurting business -- the main point of the cafes is protracted people watching -- but it made the atmosphere less intimidating for us.

Omonia's menu is surprisingly extensive -- you could actually eat dinner there if you were so inclined -- but the core lies with its coffee drinks and its pages-long list of desserts. When asked for a recommendation, our waitress, an artificially friendly Eastern European who attempted to upsell us to a bottle of wine, demurred and told us to go up to the counter and inspect them ourselves. This wasn't much help; it's the kind of display in which everything looks practically shellacked in its slightly sterile perfection. In the end we ordered the caramel cake and a piece of baklava along with two booze-enhanced coffees, each topped with a pile of whipped cream. We were somewhat embarrassed by our perplexity at the mountain of cream; we had a hard time figuring out how to even drink them without making a huge mess. (The carousers at Athens Café make it look so easy!)

The desserts were okay but not good enough to make us forget about how self-conscious the place made us feel. They're thoroughly European in their approach, with mathematical precision in the layered desserts, pristine clarity on the glazed desserts, and mounds of cream (are Europeans less prone to lactose intolerance than Americans?). This means that whatever you get will be good, but nothing will be great unless you want a by-the-book approach to whatever you order -- reliably sweet, expertly done, uninspired. As the Alpha Astoria ladies wrote of the phyllo-encased custard, the taste isn't worth the calories. (Plus, the baklava was soggy, but we're willing to blame Hanna for that, as it seems unthinkable that the original Greek cafe would have anything but crisp phyllo on the national dessert.) In the unlikely event we ever return to Omonia, we'll like get our goods to go.

Price: Consistent with other cafes, which is to say, overpriced. Two desserts and two spiked coffees set us back $29.
Will we go again? If eager non-New-York friends with outdated guidebooks visited Astoria and insisted on going to get a "taste of the boroughs," sure. Otherwise, we'll pass.