Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Eep Op Ork Ah Ah (S'Agapo; 34-21 34th Avenue)

Astoria's touches of glamour (Cavo aside, of course) are clustered around the film business -- location shoots, Kaufman studios, and the restaurants that serve the casts and crews down around 34th Avenue. With its proximity to the studios, S'Agapo is rumored to have quietly hosted the occasional celebrity. On our way there, we even passed through an on-location shoot for Life on Mars, a film which we know nothing about other than it seemed to require a lot of early 1970s autos.

In keeping with its subdued atmosphere, you're not going to find autographed photos of Robert DeNiro on S'Agapo's walls; you will, however, find a solid institution that has served as a template for the better grade of Astoria Greek restaurants.

It's not that the food at S'Agapo is so outstanding (the entrees are the usual grilled fish and lemon potatoes sort of deal). It's that you know the kitchen is doing things right, with a demure touch reminiscent of Agnanti, its closest kin. You can watch the cooks going about their business from most of the dining room if you wanted to, but the point is that you don't feel like you have to.

If, in warm weather, you have a chance to dine outside on the patio on S'Agapo's quiet stretch of 34th Avenue, you'll get a sense of why so many expats in the neighborhood thrive on sidewalk dining (though why anyone would sit outside at Athens Cafe when a 15-minute walk here brings a vastly more pleasant experience, we're not sure). S'Agapo's relatively small size -- relative to cavernous places like Telly's Taverna -- makes it feel more intimate than it might otherwise, and the mix of antique photographs and abstract on the art on the walls lend a note of what passes for quirk in an often characterless species of restaurant.

Try the kaltsounia, a fried dumpling with a soft farmer's cheese and mint, served with a small bowl of honey for dipping. The taramousalata is zesty-delicious as well. In general, you're best served at S'Agapo asking for the server's guidance on a variety of small dishes than going straight for the entrees -- the meats, fish, and stews are all trustworthy, but none that we've had are a must-have. While the appetizers we tried had a character of their own, the main dishes were a tad perfunctory.

Lamb, check. Fish, check. Now let's get back to the good stuff.

We've seen groups and families here enjoying full-table banquets, plates lining every available surface and retsina freely flowing. But on the Saturday night we went, the tables were full of couples, and though it wasn't Valentine's Day, the staff had embraced the red-heart theme without overdoing it. The lighting at S'Agapo can be harsh, though on the night we visited it seemed that they've learned to tone it down, with dim overheads and tabletop votives warming up the atmosphere. We hope the change is permanent, as it better suits S'Agapo's titular romantic mission -- after all, S'Agapo is Greek for I love you.

Price: Like most Greek restaurants, it seems unduly pricey.
Will we go again: Probably. It's the class of the old-school places.


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