We had trouble finding the place as we crawled eastward on 23rd Avenue in a blinding downpour, but finally spotted the wood-frame house, its front porch dimly illumined by colored lanterns. Abandoning the car somewhere down the street and plunging ankle-deep in water, we waded to the porch and dashed inside. Curious little knickknacks lined the walls, including a flute carved from lamb bone, an antique clock made of rope, an astrolabe, and a bunch of dried aloe hanging over the door. “Like mistletoe,” one diner observed, puckering her lips, then adding, “I feel like I’m in someone’s living room.” Indeed, a trio of businessmen had spread papers over an adjoining table as they discussed tax liabilities over glasses of ouzo, while a law student pored over her textbook of torts. A long, narrow window peered into the kitchen, where deeply red tomatoes were stacked pyramidally and a pair of raven-haired women puttered over stoves and counters.
The owners of Philoxenia—which means “hospitality” in Greek—come from Athens, and the menu displays none of the enthusiasm for whole fish found at most Astorian tavernas, which are mainly run by island folk. Instead of the fisherman, the shepherd looms large at Philoxenia. Hunkering around a table sopping wet, we warmed ourselves with a bottle of rustic Tsantalis wine from Macedonia ($18)—tart, purplish, with the merest suggestion of bubbles. Then the dishes began to arrive at intervals, giving us time to enjoy each one, and sit back a moment for a breather. The food was spectacular. As the last hurricane of the season howled outside, we bolted slices of salty haloumi cheese fried brown in olive oil ($7), so good we ordered a second helping; little hanks of loukaniko sausage stewed with peppers and tomatoes; a magnificent plate of fries ($4) sprinkled with oregano and dried cheese; a pair of meaty octopus tentacles dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar; crusty salt cod patties accompanied by garlicky skordalia; and, best of all, a quartet of perfectly grilled lamb chops ($16), which, as one diner wryly noted, “are moist and delicious rather than dry.” Even the lowly Greek salad—festive under its crown of crumbled white feta—was wonderfully turned out and left us smacking our lips.
It was a couple of weeks before we made it back, once again in a driving rain. Meatballs are a hard sell to most diners, probably because they were pelted with them regularly as kids. But the version at Philoxenia ($10) is as compelling as this much maligned minced and sculpted meat gets, pressed almost flat and mired in a dark-red fluid freighted with onions and green peppers, flavors which penetrate to the core. Recognizing us from the previous visit, the waitress offered us a family-style special, baby rabbit braised with sweet baby onions. “Where’d you get those amazing onions?” I asked her. “At the grocery store” was the deadpan reply.
We kicked back, unhitching our belts a notch, as one of the cooks, who didn’t speak much English, brought us gritty Greek coffee and a plate of thick sheep’s milk yogurt, eroded with rivulets of Greek honey and topped with toasted walnuts. As we stepped outside, the downpour recommenced, making us wonder if we’d stumbled onto some bizarre Astorian microclimate. Next visit, we’re bringing a professional meteorologist.