It’s only cold mashed potatoes laced with olive oil, lemon, and tons of raw garlic, but scordalia ($4) is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. At Scouna, a new Cretan taverna in the frigid northern reaches of Astoria’s Hellenic Kingdom, it can be matched with several dipping vehicles. When we asked what they use in Crete, our waitress suggested fried zucchini or fried eggplant, then kindly assembled a combination ($6) cooked in a light batter. The eggplant was especially ethereal, without a trace of bitterness. A dab of scordalia also accompanies bacalao ($13)—not the fibrous fritters of Portuguese or Caribbean provenance, but four huge planks of salt cod extensively rehydrated so they almost taste fresh. On subsequent visits we experimented wildly with our scordalia, first dipping well-browned french fries, then thick grilled sausages, and finally spooning it straight into our eager mouths, conscious that we had developed an addiction. Medical note: After a serious scordalia binge, the mouth burns, the eyes water, and the patient becomes unfit to venture within 10 feet of polite company.
The derivation of the restaurant’s name is revealed on the front of the menu, where a schooner, sails luffing in the breeze, rides lazily at anchor as gulls flap overhead. Fortunately, the decor of this grottolike and gracefully windowed space might be termed Nautical Lite: Apart from an absurd little statue of a rotund salt who looks like the Gorton’s fisherman (or maybe the murderer in I Know What You Did Last Summer), there are only a few kitschy touches, and a close inspection reveals that the fishing nets suspended from the ceiling are real enough to snare your main course.
But don’t let that distract you from the appetizers, including the most famous snack associated with the shoe-shaped island, saganaki, a flour-dusted half-inch piece of kefalograviera—the brilliant white sheep-milk cheese with a sharp flavor that develops slowly in the mouth—fried golden in olive oil. At the table, this fragrant slab is ceremoniously sliced into oozy bite-size pieces and showered with lemon juice. It’s unforgettable, even when mopped with the rather dry Italian loaf provided. A more nautical favorite is octopus ($9), charred tentacles basted with olive oil and—get this—balsamic vinegar, a condiment that, good as it can be, has contaminated nearly every cuisine in New York’s culinary world. In this case it replaces the traditional red wine vinegar.
At this point you may be wondering, where are the entrées? We wondered the same thing, as we knocked back plate after plate of top-quality appetizers. Apart from a small selection of meats that sat in their case untouched one visit, most of the main courses are whole fish. All are large enough to share, and an inspection of the iced selection will cue you to what’s freshest. Grilled porgy ($18, market price) is always a good choice; it comes carefully deboned and sprinkled with olive oil and dried oregano. If they’re out of it, opt for the modest-sized red mullets (four to an order, about $20), though they come fried rather than grilled. Best of all, though, and closest to the hearts of the Greek patrons of Scouna, are the smelts (“marides,” $10), a school of tiny fish that gleam silver among the chunks of ice. Deep-fried and served 100 to a plate, they arrive crunchy, chewy, barely bony, and fresh as salt spray.
Of course, they taste even better if you dip them in scordalia.