Ever since the Mediterranean Diet blew Greek cuisine across the bridge from Astoria, midtown tavernas and estiatoria have been popping up like heads on a hydra, or do I mean warriors springing from a dragon’s teeth? Like many, I am captivated by the lure of freshly grilled fish with a wide assortment of starters and sides, and I’ve fallen for the informality of the spots as well. I am also learning not to say ouch when the per-pound price is revealed. There are times when the differential would pay the cost of a round-trip taxi to Queens.
The newest kid on the block is Avra, in the neighborhood where “Astoria” usually implies “Waldorf.” It’s a comfortable spot that blends the best of Molyvos’s cosseted atmosphere with the noisy vitality of Milos. Twinkling fairy lights decorate the trees outside; if you squint, you can pretend they’re hanging from ships’ riggings at Pireaus. The large room is inviting, with bright rugs on the whitewashed walls and rush-bottomed chairs for a hint of rusticity. Order a bottle of Boutaria retsina ($24) to get you in the “Opa!” mood. While making a decision, nibble on the mildly garlicky hummus, maroon kalamata olives, and mouth-burning radishes that arrive with the bread basket. Then ignore the nontraditional raw bar and head straight to the better-than-average renderings of the classics: a light tzatziki only mildly scented with garlic ($6.95), or the patzaria skordalia, beets marinated in citrus olive oil served with the zing of skordalia garlic spread ($7.95). I was fine with the chunky melitanosalata, but on one visit my Greek-speaking friend complained, expecting a creamy spread and not the proffered bits of tasty eggplant and tomato. She was placated with a gratis order of velvety whipped taramosalata ($6.95). Another time the portion of four hefty grilled fresh sardines would have served as a main most places ($10.95), and the octapodi, rounds of octopus charred on the outside and tender within ($12.95), also offered enough animal protein to satisfy even folks who aren’t monitoring their cholesterol.
But the raison d’être for an estiatoria is the cooked-to-order fish, and Avra is no exception. You need an oracle to decide between the firm-fleshed black sea bass whose flaky mildness is enhanced by a spritz of lemon juice ($21.95) or the sweeter and softer-textured Mediterranean favorite known in Provence as loup de mer and here as lavraki. The moist, white-fleshed American snapper offers another possibility, while the delicate but bony barbonia ($18.95), my usual standby, seems almost mundane in this company. Taste comparisons are guaranteed unless you decide to share a fish. Standout sides include a verdant mess of the steamed wild greens known as horta ($5.50) and Greek-style okra stewed in a sauce of tomato with a hint of onion. Add one of the special salads—marouli, hearts of romaine with a dressing of creamy feta ($8.95), or a roka, a mound of zesty baby arugula topped with slivers of red onion and a crumble of goat cheese ($8.95)—to round out the meal.
Skip the ho-hum baklava and have a Greek coffee and a small glass of dessert wine, then head out into the evening feeling virtuous, if impecunious. Because while sharing can get you out on the street without too big a dent in the budget, the Mediterranean Diet is definitely better for your health than for your pocketbook.