Mediterranean Diet at Kopiaste Taverna
If Turkey were a skull facing west, the island of Cyprus would be tucked well under its chin, a scant 60 miles off both the Turkish and Syrian coasts. A sizable portion of the Cypriot population is Turkish, but the majority is of ancient-Greek descent, and the two ethnicities have been going at it for centuries. Control of the island now seems beyond the reach of any single government, yet this apparently intractable schism has led to quite the opposite effect when it comes to food: Cypriot cuisine represents a mellow merging of both Attic and Anatolian, producing a delectable hybrid.
You can savor it at Kopiaste Taverna in Astoria, a new restaurant in the shadow of the elevated N tracks just south of the Ditmars stop, in a neighborhood that looks positively European with its sidewalk cafés, Le Corbusier–influenced new construction, and looming railroad overpass resembling a Roman aqueduct. Kopiaste, which means "come in and sit down" in the Cypriot dialect of Greek, shares a modern building with the Pancyprian Center (an organization that, despite its name, is dedicated to consolidation of Greek power over Cyprus). Up a flight of stairs you'll find a wide and deep dining room with small woven rugs and ethnic costumes hung on the walls, far more comfortable and sumptuous than most of the tavernas that Astoria is famous for.
Nothing more perfectly illustrates the eclectic cooking of the island and its laid-back eating habits than the "Cyprus Meze," a tasting menu of small dishes in a style that originated in Persia. For $22 apiece, diners enjoy a procession of 17 well-paced short plates, furnished with toasted pitas and slices of French bread. First to arrive are composed salads and dips. The orange fish-roe taramosalata is silkier than the usual article, while the cucumber-and-yogurt tzatziki adds a surprising dose of fresh mint to the usual raw-garlic depth charge. Emphatically not vegetarian, the freshly rolled grape leaves are stuffed with ground pork, a meat Greek Cypriots are obsessed with—perhaps because their Turkish brethren can't eat it.
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When pourgouri arrive they're dead ringers for Lebanese kibbe, and the ground beef and onions that tumble out when you cut into these cracked-wheat torpedoes serve to confirm the resemblance. There are succulent chicken and pork kebabs, too, and wonderful pork sausages that bulge under their camouflage of salad. As you eat your way through the meze, you'll notice that Cypriots use a slightly different palette of spices than regular Greek cooks. In the meatballs called keftedes, you'll detect a faint taste of cumin, a spice almost never found in Hellenic gastronomy. The pork stew called afelia is flavored powerfully with powdered coriander, making it taste almost curried. And loukaniko, a lamb sausage, tastes pungently of the island's distinctive red wine. The dessert called daktila ("toes"), crunchy ribbons of sweet dough sprinkled with sesame seeds, provides an agreeable finish to the meal.
Once you figure out the ones you love, individual meze can be ordered from other parts of the menu, which also lists many Greek standards. Pooled in green olive oil and pink vinegar, the oxtapodi ($14)—a single charred and ropey tentacle—proves unforgettably good. Anything that comes with the garlicky potato dip called skordalia is also recommended, including kolokithakia tiganita ($7): eggy zucchini pancakes so numerous this appetizer could make an agreeable vegetarian entrée.
Grilled whole fish are a given in Astoria. At Kopiaste, where pig reigns supreme, fewer choices than usual are offered. You can have either a farmed Mediterranean sea bass or a wild-caught porgy (both market-priced around $22), blackened over flames and squirted with lemon juice. Smoky deliciousness! Starchy sides include the usual french fries, citrusy baked-potato wedges, and a pilaf made of cracked wheat moistened with tomatoes that screams Syria.
As a friend and I sat in the taverna on a Saturday evening, tucking into stifado kouneli ($16), a great vinegary rabbit stew rife with sweet baby onions, a tall gray-haired man stepped up to a Casio and ran his fingers over the keys. Then he launched into a program of Cypriot folk music—minor-key songs with loping irregular time signatures that seemed to float in the air. The diners, mainly immigrants from the island, pushed back from their plates for a moment, savoring a glass of Plakota ($27 per bottle), Cyprus's most esteemed wine, very dry and flinging off a faint odor of violets, while they enjoyed the bittersweet melodies.
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