Like many of my generation, I was raised to eat everything on my plate, compelled to sit and stare at congealing masses of unwanted food until I mastered my gag reflex and got it down. While this training means that I at least taste and swallow virtually everything, there are still some foods I pass on. High on my list is lamb’s head. So when I spotted a few in the display case at Stamatis, I had the same reaction as when I’ve seen them staring blankly from rotisseries in Athens—uh-uh and move on. They faded from my consciousness as I enjoyed the taverna-like surroundings. With my lunch bunch anything beyond white-meat chicken is a culinary challenge, so there’d be no heads turning up at our table.
We dipped the pieces of crusty, eggy bread into the fruity olive oil and waited for our appetizers as the copper beakers of retsina began to flow. The snippets of dill were a nice addition to the yogurt, garlic, and cucumber of an unusually chunky tzatziki ($4), and the more adventurous and I enjoyed the two tenderly charred tentacles of grilled octopus ($10). The pikilia platter’s thin slices of zucchini and eggplant ($6.50) proved that the chef knew his frying. Mains were equally pleasing. Five gigantic grilled shrimp ($16.50) satisfied one guest while the other savored succulent, marvelously tender chunks of lamb in a tomato-based stew ($10) and I wimped out with a sweet sea bass with a slightly earthy undertone (market price). Coffee metrio rounded out the meal.
In the intervening days, however, I found myself feeling guilty of culinary xenophobia. But when I returned, sardinelike atherina (market price) had replaced the grinning skulls in the display case. I love all small fried fish, so I forgot my mission and gladly indulged in the firmly sweet bites; a side portion of merely OK dandelion greens, instead of the well-seasoned spinach flecked with tomato, was as exotic as the dish got. Crisply fried on the outside, runny but not oily, the saganaki ($6.50) was truly special, while the heaping bowl full of greens, tomatoes, bell pepper, and cheese that passes for a small Greek salad ($5) satisfied all four of us. A roasted half chicken ($8) was as juicy as hoped, and wedges of sweet, ripe watermelon floating on ice arrived unbidden and uncharged, proving that Greeks bearing gifts are not always a bad thing. Even so, I left strangely disappointed. I wanted some head, but there was none to be had.
A year later, after many telephone calls and disappointments, I ventured back and was thrilled when the waitress announced that they had kefalaki ($9), as I’d learned lamb’s head is called. She asked if the chef should clean it, but that was the last thing on my mind—after my long wait, I wanted to see it arrive complete with lolling tongue and a full set of choppers. I reached in and swallowed a fingerful of granularly spongy white stuff—brain, I guess. Then I let the chef have his way. When the head reappeared, it was reduced to shards of meat and a few recognizable parts: tongue, eye sockets, gum ridge. I nibbled a few bits more and concluded that, for me, lambs’ heads are like chitlins. I don’t eat them either.