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Athens Tavern
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Athens Tavern

Cuisine:  Contemporary Greek

Vibe: Unassuming neighborhood spot
Occasion: Family dinner
Don’t-Miss Dish: Baked whole fish; rabbit with bergamot
Drink Specialty: Greek wines
Price: Appetizers, $5-$12.95; entrees, $17-$27; desserts, $6.50-$8.50
Reservations Accepted, but not necessary.
Address: 23-01 31 St., at the corner of 23rd Ave. (Astoria, NY)
Phone: (718)267-0800

Capsule: This earnest Greek restaurant delivers a terrific baked whole fish.

You don’t dine at Athens Tavern for its decorative nods to the Mediterranean coast. It’s a humble Astoria
eatery on a street with a healthy scattering of Greek restaurants.
There is no vaulted ceiling or breezy white drapery. It’s a simple
space with white paper-covered tables, windows facing the street and
terra-cotta walls and kitschy canvases of men performing a traditional
Greek dance.

You go to Athens Tavern for the whole baked fish stuffed with wild
greens. On some nights, it’s a porgy or a black sea bass. On others,
it’s a gleaming red snapper that arrives at the table completely
intact: eyes, tail and a full set of teeth. The snapper tastes as if
it’s just been taken off a fishing line and stuffed with a fresh mix of
dandelions, watercress and louisa.

“Louisa is a lemon grass herb from Crete,” explains co-owner Antonia Sapounakis in a telephone interview. Sapounakis, who hails from Crete, was formerly a waitress at both Avra and Estatiorio Milos in Manhattan. She and co-owner Nikos Gregoriou, secured Michelin-starred chef Yiannis Baxevanis, to oversee their “gastro-taverna” menu. Noted for his modern Greek cooking at Yiorti restaurant in Athens, Baxevanis lends this Astoria kitchen a revolving roster of his sous chefs from the Greek capital.

Other than their roots, Sapounakis and Baxevanis share an adoration
of Cretan cuisine and its abundance of fresh herbs. Baxevanis even
hand-plucks many of the exotic seasonings on Athens Tavern’s menu
himself.

A roasted chicken, served butterflied, is garnished with a fistful
of fresh thyme, rosemary and sage. A whole rabbit, marinated overnight
in red wine, gets a heavy dose of bergamot. The meat is fragrant and
juicy, served on velvety, mashed sweet potatoes. A garlicky eggplant
spread is streaked with Cretan barley rusk, which provides just enough
earthy balance to an otherwise smooth meze.

You are apt to find a better spread of signature Greek starters at
other establishments around the city. Here, an unpleasantly thick
taramosalata showed no tangible evidence of carp roe; a homemade pie
stuffed with leeks, spinach and Mizithra cheese tasted chalky; and
though nicely charred on the outside, the grilled octopus was tough
with overbearing strides of fennel and anise.

When you have a regular rotation of chefs in the kitchen,
inconsistencies are inevitable. On one visit, octopus gently sweetened
with red dessert wine and wrapped in onion petals made for a supple,
nicely balanced appetizer. On another occasion, it came soaked in the
wine reduction and indistinguishable, other than by its chewy texture.

But the best of Athens Tavern is the fish selection: porgy, red
mullet, shrimps and langoustines, which arrive sweet and moist with
subtle strides of lemon, olive oil and the charcoal grill. On a recent
visit, a nearby table of 12 ordered 12 whole baked fish. Though it
seemed slightly comical, they had the right idea. For better
taramosalata or tzatziki – which is not on the menu here – head down
the street to Elias Corner.
For an excellently cooked snapper that costs $30 and easily feeds
three, Athen’s Tavern is a premium addition to the neighborhood’s Greek
classics.

When you have a regular rotation of chefs in
the kitchen, inconsistencies are inevitable. On one visit, octopus
gently sweetened with red dessert wine and wrapped in onion petals made
for a supple, nicely balanced appetizer. On another occasion, it came
soaked in the wine reduction and indistinguishable, other than by its
chewy texture.

But the best of Athens Tavern is the fish
selection: porgy, red mullet, shrimps and langoustines, which arrive
sweet and moist with subtle strides of lemon, olive oil and the
charcoal grill. On a recent visit, a nearby table of 12 ordered 12
whole baked fish. Though it seemed slightly comical, they had the right
idea. For better taramosalata or tzatziki – which is not on the menu
here – head down the street to Elias Corner. For an excellently cooked
snapper that costs $30 and easily feeds three, Athen’s Tavern is a
premium addition to the neighborhood’s Greek classics.

Until we eat again,
Restaurant Girl
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