Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's Cretan to Me

"Would you like me to take a picture of all of you?" the waiter asked, after watching me shoot photos of all the dishes we ordered--and there were quite a few, as I ordered solely from the extensive appetizers menu for the five of us.

"No thanks," I said, "I only do food."

"You only do food!" he repeated, amused.

The waiter and the owners at S'Agapo were impressed by the quantity of the food we ordered as well as by our particular choices. And I was impressed by the quality of just about everything we ordered, as was everyone else in the party, including one Greek-American, if that counts for anything.

S'Agapo is a laid back, friendly, family-run Cretan restaurant in Astoria, Queens (where you'll find New York's largest concentration of Greek restaurants). It's somewhat more upscale than most of the local competition, but a steal compared to high-end Manhattan Greek eateries like Molyvos or Periyali for food that's of near or equal quality, and, I think, with more character.

While the many of the dishes served at S'Agapo can be found at other Greek restaurants, there are noticeable differences, perhaps due in part to geography, Crete being, I believe, the southernmost part of Greece. A mixed dips plate featured some of the usual suspects like tzatziki (yogurt/cucumber) and taramasalata (carp roe spread), some Cretan specialties like parsley, red pepper, and grape leaf dips, an olive tapenade, and hummus, which I don't usually associate with Greek menus. The freshness and variety of flavors was breathtaking, but my favorite spread was one we ordered separately, made from fava beans with wonderfully aromatic olive oil. I found the gigantes (large white beans) and the dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), common on most Greek menus, much less exciting, though only in relation to the stars of the meal.

Small fried cheese pies, described as raviolis on the menu (I forget the Greek name), were served with honey, apparently another Cretan tradition.

The menu includes several varieties of saganaki (melted sharp (and usually, I believe, sheep) cheese), and we had a version with portabella mushroom. We accepted a recommendation for an off-menu special of flat green beans with potatoes, which were delightfully seasoned with a dill-leaning herb mix.

My favorite among the meat items we ordered was leg of lamb chunks cooked with white wine. We also had some excellent loukaniko (sausage) and keftedes (officially meatballs, but actually grilled patties at S'Agapo). The grilled octopus was quite good too. The quail were somewhat disappointing, though, not nearly at the level of the quail I fell for at Amazing 66 in Chinatown, and arranged helter skelter on the plate.

We certainly could have done without dessert, but that didn't stop us from ordering the cream cake (the waiter's recommendation) and a galaktoboureko (custard pie, and a particular favorite of mine). On top of those, we were comped with a plate of cookies.

I mentioned Periyali and Molyvos above. I've been to Periyali once and found it rather disappointing. I've been to Molyvos once and found the food fabulous and the service impeccable, but to be honest I prefer the homey atmosphere of S'Agapo. And, as I also mentioned above, it's plenty more affordable.

34-21 34th Ave
Astoria, NY

S'Agapo on Urbanspoon


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