Ovelia Psistaria's Fear of Frying
Ovelia Psistaria doesn't look like other Greek restaurants in Astoria: Missing are the iced displays of fish, barnyard animals rotating on spits, 3-D pictures of the Parthenon, and rustic taverna décor that have long characterized the neighborhood's Hellenic eateries. Instead, there's a long bar that twinkles like a starry sky with light-emitting diodes, slinging a menu of sweet, colorful cocktails that owe nothing to metaxa or ouzo. Lit by fixtures resembling ghosts dangling from the ceiling, the dining room ascends to an elevated rear platform flanked by smeary paintings of half-ruined boats. While the diverse décor doesn't quite hang together, neighborhood patrons seem to relish eating in a relentlessly modern-looking place.
The bill of fare remains resolutely Greek, though, with a handful of interpolations from other Astorian ethnicities, and a few modern fripperies. The "psistaria" in the name refers not to a walk-in clinic where cysts are speedily lanced, but to a restaurant that specializes in grilling. This activity dovetails nicely with the modern distaste for fried foods, and thus do the galeos ($15) arrive prison-striped from the grill, rather than thickly breaded and fried as they are elsewhere. Also known as sand sharks, these ambassadors from the Gulf of Maine are the only sharks that breathe air, and also use their gills. Even more strangely, each female has twin uteri, in which a pair of youngsters gestates for as long as a year. (Somewhat gruesomely, one of the fetuses sometimes eats the other.) The shark flesh is dense, oily, and off-white, and the piquant potato dip skordalia accompanies the thick slices. The combination is beyond brilliant, and this isn't the last you'll be seeing of the skordalia.
Also smoky from the grill are a triad of delicate quail ($17), which must be picked up and gnawed—so don't wear your white shirt to Ovelia. The same number of meaty lamb chops sets you back $20, while, in a nod to the area's Argentine population, skirt steak is offered, oddly rubbed with Greek coffee. Additional grilled selections include loukanika, a scrumptious sausage of putative Roman origin made on the premises. Less interesting are some of the restaurant's freakish inventions, including a kebab interspersing chunks of lamb with candied figs, yellow squash, and cherry tomatoes. Blech!
Main courses are voluminous and come with a choice of spinach, lemon potatoes, rice, French fries, or the very Italian broccoli rabe. It was actually the fries that drew me into Ovelia in the first place, when a commentator on our food blog, Fork in the Road, claimed they were the best in town. He may be right; they're well-browned, wobbly, creamy, and especially excellent if perversely dipped—for a little potato-on-potato action—in skordalia. Starch-wise, the heated and soft-as-kid-glove pitas that come with many dishes are superb. (Don't hesitate to call for more when your supply runs out.)
The traditional Greek hot and cold appetizers called meze also excel at Ovelia. Kolokithokeftedes ($9, just try to pronounce it!) denote airy patties of breaded and fried zucchini, proving that Ovelia isn't completely afraid of frying. The ouzo-laced tomato sauce alongside is a bit bizarre, but you can always ignore it. One can still get the usual bread dips, like kafteri (mashed feta), taramosalata (cod roe spread), and, best of all, tzatziki (cucumber, yogurt, and garlic), though the menu tries to tempt you with something called "Greek tapas." Don't be seduced! Sardines topped with jalapeños and cured beef doused with mandarin vinaigrette are things better left in the chef's imagination.
Not so the appetizers of lima beans in tomato sauce, the minced-calamari croquettes, or the scrumptious slices of grilled squash and eggplant served with more of that garlicky skordalia. If you visit with someone who routinely demands the "meat-lovers" pie from Domino's, go for the "Ovelia pikilia" ($21), an unadulterated heap of pure meat, including sweetbreads, veal liver, chicken, pork, and that luscious loukanika. Ordering it is somewhat embarrassing, though, since it represents an affirmation that, even at the appetizer stage of your meal, you don't want to be bothered with vegetables or starch.
The wine list features bottles from around the globe, and the prices are mainly in the $20 to $40 range. Still, to remind yourself that you're sitting in a Greek restaurant, or maybe to make up for the lack of predictable décor, you might want to order the old-fashioned bottle of retsina, the Greek white wine pungently flavored with cask resin. The 500 ml bottle is enough for two, and, at $7, it sure beats one of the cloying cocktails concocted at the starlit bar.
Check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, for photos of many of the dishes
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