Wonderful , hungry-making review. 'Smelt' usually refers to a freshwater fish - were these really anchovies?
By Laura Shunk
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A block south of restaurant-crammed Ditmars Boulevard—Astoria's Greek main drag—there's another street of slightly more concealed Attic eateries, hideaways frequented by Manhattanites who brag to their friends, "You've got to try this place I've found way off the beaten track." These include Stamatis and Telly's Taverna, but go beyond them farther west on 23rd Avenue. There you'll discover, in a residential neighborhood, a genuinely rustic Greek spot situated on the ground floor of a white frame house.
26-02 23rd Ave.
New York, NY 11105
Region: Long Island City
Gregory's 26 Corner Taverna has a few chairs out front under an awning where, even in cold weather, patrons sit sipping ouzo and smoking cigarettes. Fishermen come to this patio straight from their Long Island berthages to offer the proprietor catches of porgy and baby dogfish shark, wrapped in brown paper and glistening with seawater.
Inside the taverna, there's a square dining room with 10 tables covered in red-checked cloths, a gigantic painting of Mykonos with its thatch-roofed windmills that might have been done by a talented art student, and a high counter over which you can peek into the busy kitchen. On weekdays, every seat in the dining room is taken by immigrant working stiffs who treat Gregory's as their local bar. When a party of unfamiliar diners arrives, the waitress sends a few of the old guys out onto the porch, so you can sit down and eat.
O, the food! I haven't tasted such perfect Greek country fare in a dozen years. When the zucchini fritters with the tongue-tying name of kolokithokeftedes arrive, six to an order, they're the size of half-pound burgers and nearly as brown. The patties prove so light and eggy, they threaten to float off the plate and zoom around the room. At $8, it's an app several can share, especially if you order the near-compulsory accompaniment—a plate of sharp tzatziki ($6), made with the strained Greek yogurt that puts all others to shame.
There are plenty of other vegetarian choices: a Greek salad with a wallet-size plank of soft, salty feta; lightly pickled beets strewn with purple onions and swimming in olive oil only slightly less green than Prell shampoo; and oblong plates of dandelion greens that haven't been stewed to death. But even better are the lovely grilled peppers in shades running from yellow to green to brownish-red. Although pointier than bell peppers and looking like they ought to be spicy, these are mild and verdant tasting. You can have them dressed with olive oil and herbs ($8) or stuffed with the same creamy feta that comes with the salad ($12).
While many of Astoria's Greek places sell their whole fish by the pound (including many unsustainable choices, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium guide), Gregory's offerings tend to be more often of fixed price and sustainable. My favorite are the anchovies here called smelts ($13). The tiny swimmers enter plated in a vast school, barely dusted with flour and quickly fried. They crunch like pork rinds with no discernible fishy taste; it's hard to imagine a better snack to go with a glass of retsina, the Greek wine flavored with resin from pine barrels. The sardines appear five to an order: big fellas charred and smoky from the grill, sluiced with olive oil, and bedded with chopped parsley.
Among the oceangoing offerings, find the salt cod beloved of Greeks, who traditionally consumed it on long voyages. Desalinated, egg-washed, and fried, bakalario ($15)—as the preserved fish is called—comes in hefty wads sided with clouds of skordalia, a dip of mashed potatoes with so much raw garlic, the effect on your upper alimentary system is much the same as chilies. But there are fresh whole fish, too, including the dogfish and porgy you saw on the patio. The porgy ($20) glints beautifully in the light of the bright ceiling fixtures, splayed skin side down for easy picking. The head dominates one corner of the plate and stares at you gimlet-eyed as you munch.
And yes, there shall be meat, too. Apart from the sausages, meatballs, and bekri meze (pork poached in wine) of the appetizer menu, there always seems to be a whole roast animal working in the kitchen, especially on weekends, when the tables are dominated by extended families rather than single men. For $20, you can have a plate of baby goat or baby lamb, crowding the platter with lemon-roasted potatoes.
Finish up your meal with a cup of gritty Greek coffee and a small square of baklava, furnished gratis. Then go outside and invite the codgers to come back in.