One distinguishing feature of Greek Cypriot cooking is the use of cilantro. Native to the Mediterranean area, this odiferous botanical was once a cornerstone of ancient Hellenic cooking and preserving. Since then it has meandered around the world, so that now Mexican, Chinese, and Indian food are unthinkable without it. Nevertheless, modern Greek cuisine virtually ignores it. Yet the stinky herb is a prominent component of Aliada’s horiatiki salad (large $8.50, larger $10.50), a lush tangle of cucumbers, caper leaves, arugula, scallions, lettuce, black olives, feta, and tomatoes. As with the other eight salads on the menu, it arrives intentionally underdressed, encouraging you to pour on the olive oil and red-wine vinegar with a free hand. Cilantro also makes a stunning appearance in keftedes, oniony Cypriot meatballs so light they threaten to fly up from their green lettuce bed like well-driven golf balls. Eight to a plate ($7.95), they arrive blackened all over from a final charcoal grilling.
A scant 60 miles from Syria in the far eastern Mediterranean, and far closer to Turkey than to Greece, Cyprus was riven by a 1974 conflict, so that now the top half is Turkish and the bottom half Greek-ish. Located in remote northern Astoria, Aliada revels in the food of the Greek half. Like most Astorian restaurants, the kitchen chugs along in the front window as a lure to passersby, and the dining room looks like any other modern dining room in town, with exposed brick and whitewashed walls, save for a niche toward the rear that holds a hookah, a ceramic olive-oil jar, and a gigantic flask of Metaxa, a brandy, with a brass spigot near the bottom of the bottle for quick access. Indeed, the Cypriot wines at Aliada are particularly impressive, including Keo Othello ($24), a dry, light, fruity red, and Commandaria, a sherry-style digestif named after an order of knight. Have a glass with the wonderful dessert of yogurt, nuts, and golden Greek honey ($3).
It will come as no surprise that a number of Middle Eastern specialties have crept into the Cypriot table of mezedes. At Aliada, you’ll find a fascinating hummus ($4.95), looser and more chunky than the usual chickpea puree, and a version of tabbouleh too. More surprising, perhaps, is the falafel. Shaped like small footballs, and larger than average, these falafel have a rugged texture and a distinctively nutty and cinnamony taste. They clearly do not come from a box. You could easily make a complete meal of the vegetarian mezedes, and if you do, it should also include manitaria krasata (mushrooms cooked in wine), kolokithokeftedes (free-form zucchini croquettes), kopanisti (a Slavic-seeming mush of red pepper and feta), and especially, the charcoal-grilled haloumi cheese in all its charred and rubbery glory. Like Texans, the Cypriots will grill almost anything.
Though the menu neglects seafood, there is a fine grilled-octopus appetizer ($11.95). But this cephalopod makes more of an impression in a salad named after the restaurant that matches the tentacles with potatoes and strips of roasted red pepper. All this is leading up to the best thing on the menu, charcoal-grilled lamb chops ($19.95). Five to a serving and accompanied by a fine plate of fries, these luscious chops have no equal in Astoria—perhaps in the entire city.