Greek Done Right
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Parea is not the first updated-Greek restaurant to open in Manhattan in the last year, nor the second. But it may be the one that comes closest to getting the formula right.
Barbounia, just a few doors down from Parea, sports a feathered chandelier and heavily tweaked food: There’s lots of modernism in the mix, but not quite enough Greek.Kellari Taverna,on 44th Street, inverts that formula, offering plenty of authenticity in the form of whole fishes and stewed goat, but the ultimate effect is somewhat ponderous. Parea’s creator, Michael Symon, manages to hit the right note, keeping the food nimble and inspired, but still recognizably faithful to its roots.
The menu leads off with a dozen small plates (all $7) that can serve as liquor snacks in the airy front lounge or starters to a meal in the orange-lit dining room. Every hip cuisine nowadays must have its ceviche; Mr. Symon calls his spinialo and serves three kinds, the best of which incorporates artichokes, olives, and almonds alongside fresh tuna.
Much of Parea’s appeal lies in its reluctance to pander to the glamorous Park Avenue South crowd with an overly sanitized menu. Slices of lamb’s heart make a unique, enjoyable snack, accompanied by an abundance of savory, a minty herb that gets little attention. If that’s too far-out, pieces of veal tongue add a subtle but distinctive bite to the salmon spinialo.
Saganaki, the splendid hot cheese dish that’s a high point of Greek cuisine, doesn’t need any improving. But Mr. Symon makes his ($12) with manouri cheese instead of the customary kasseri or kefalograviera, and the result has a disappointing crumbly,chalky texture instead of a delectable ooze. There’s plenty of crumbly cheese at the restaurant, from complimentary feta and olives to the feta dessert, without the saganaki being crumbly as well. Embellishments of walnuts, fig jam, and honey make the appetizer almost dessert-like.
The main courses don’t quite have the zest of the smaller ones, but they compensate with exorbitant heft. A sizable halibut filet ($26), seared until it’s slightly dry, soaks up its lemon-olive oil sauce beautifully, and the favas and asparagus strewn thickly on top couldn’t be fresher. Thick yogurt sauce turns a lamb porterhouse ($29) into a savory refresher, an effect that’s amplified by a flawless salad of watercress and mint. Two wings of skate ($23), twice the usual dose, are pan-roasted to a pretty, tasty brown and laid on a flavorful bed of plump shell-less mussels, greens, and sweet sausage chunks.
More than half the wines are Greek, including the splurge bottle, a $375 Gaia Estate agiorgitiko. The list categorizes them into rubrics like “Lively and Fresh” and “Rich and Bold,” which unfortunately the servers seem to interpret as a license not to offer any navigational guidance of their own. Boutari’s xinomavro ($12/$48) has a dark, figgy spiciness without the hard edge that the grape often wields. Gaia’s Notios ($10/$40) shows off the fragrant freshness of the agiorgitiko grape, while a cabernet/agiorgitiko blend by Yiannis Vatistas ($13/$52) marries the ripe fruit with lingering richness.
Jodi Elliott’s tiny desserts (all $7) neatly meld the modern and the classic: Familiar items like rice pudding, albeit more delicate than most, vie for your dessert dollar with a strawberry-feta tart whose sharpness is an acquired taste, or yogurt sorbet with dill syrup. The best might be an easygoing treat of “Greek doughnut holes,” light fried dough balls with a creamy dipping sauce and an unexpected but terrific accompanying glass of mildly sweet sage iced tea.
After not quite finding what I wanted at recent Greek openings, it’s a pleasure to have that itch scratched at last.The smooth stylization of the muscular cuisine and the casually comfortable setting succeed where similar attempts have not. With Parea, the Greek revival may have come into its own.
Parea, 36 E. 20th St., between Park Avenue South and Broadway, 212-777-8448.
FRANKIE GOES TO MANHATTAN It’s true: Manhattan has everything. Even the treats you used to have to go to Brooklyn for, like sandwiches from Frankie’s Spuntino, make it here eventually. Frankie’s, already a Carroll Gardens landmark after two years, recently opened a Manhattan branch at the less-avant garde end of Clinton Street, where it runs the risk of confusion with its downtown neighbors Frank and Li’l Frankie’s.
“Spuntino” means snack, and Frankie’s Spuntino’s fare is thoroughly unpretentious, but the two Frankies that run it, who have trained with such eminences as Charlie Palmer and Paul Bocuse, bring a certain luminous quality to their down-to-earth snacks. They don’t serve anything more exotic than gnocchi in marinara sauce ($13), but the sterling, often local, ingredients make the simplicity just right. That marinara, for instance, has a long-cooked, meaty flavor that deepens each of the many dishes in which it takes part, such as the delicate gnocchi or an eggplant sandwich (all sandwiches are $9) whose slabs of eggplant and mozzarella soak in the thick sauce.
Another winner among the sandwiches, which come on soft, focaccia-style bread from Sullivan Street Bakery, is made with no marinara but with piquant broccoli rabe and big ingots of pork sausage. House-made ribbons of tagliatelle ($15) have a firm bite and almost don’t need the rich ragu, with long, juicy shreds of braised lamb, that tops them.
With 20 close-packed seats,the restaurant is small enough that everyone knows when the more fragrant dishes are coming out. The smell of sage frying in brown butter means someone’s getting the cavatelli with sausage ($15); sweet spice means a savvy table skipped the unimpressive ricotta cheesecake ($5) and ordered the terrific wine-stewed prunes ($6) for dessert.
A plethora of fresh salads augments the streamlined trattoria classics, along with a selection of meats and Italian cheeses that would be more welcome if the cramped space weren’t so unconducive to leisurely grazing. Fifty-odd Italian wines accompany the food beautifully and affordably many customers will see no need to venture beyond $12 carafes of the house red, a sturdy and well-balanced nero d’avola. Those that do will find dozens of bottles under $40 and just a few above.
Dishes at the new Spuntino cost a dollar or two more than their Brooklyn counterparts, but the service is just as warm here, and the experience is comparable: snug, traditional, and delicious.
Frankie’s Spuntino, 17 Clinton St., between Houston and Stanton streets, 212-253-2303.