The dining room at Metsovo feels positively prehistoric. Blackened by six years of smoke, a whitewashed fireplace blazes at the end of the room, and the senior citizens who frequent the place cluster at small tables like moths around the licking flames. The unvarnished brick walls stand so high that the ceiling remains indiscernible in the semi-darkness; from it droop wrought-iron light fixtures that might double as devices to torture peasants. Metsovo is a regional Greek restaurant that seems like an afterthought to the next-door and more mainstream Aegean, which shares the same kitchen. On a first visit, my designated eater (the guy who cleans all the plates after the other guests are finished) got lost in Aegean, but then surprised everyone by appearing through a secret passageway, like Theseus emerging unscathed from the Minotaur’s maze.
Metsovo describes its food as “cuisine from the Epirus Mountains,” a hikers’ paradise in northwestern Greece on the Albanian border. This is not the fish-rich cooking of the Greek islands, and anyone who arrives intent on ordering seafood must be crazy, or ignorant of the treasures this joint is capable of. Indeed, we did order a whole branzino ($25) that evening, and it was lackluster compared to the Hellenic whole-fish places of midtown and Astoria. “Not enough garlic,” the designated eater sniffed as he picked every last bone clean.
Mountain food depends on sheep and goats for its main courses, and there’s nothing better than the baby goat fricassee ($22), which the menu refers to as “Ali Pasha.” This early-19th-century Ottoman strongman made Epirus nominally independent, and was lionized for his efforts by Lord Byron. Laked on a plate, the loose dish is risotto-like. The distended grains swim in meat juices, and gobs of tender bony goat intersperse with tendrils of green chard. There are atolls of yogurt, too, making the dish pleasantly tart.
Lamb Yannina ($19) is another mountain standard. While it looks good on paper, it turns out to be rather dull in execution. A prosaic lamb stew is poured into a hollowed loaf shaped like a pumpkin, and white cheese is melted on top before the bread lid is replaced. In the epic flavor battle between cheese and meat, the sharp cheese easily vanquishes the meat. Much better are the Epirus mountain pies ($15 each), a series of filo wedges stuffed with such interesting ingredients as dandelions, ground lamb, roasted veggies, and—my favorite—dilled and cheese-clumped mashed potatoes. According to the waiter, the filo is homemade. These pies will remind you of the wheel-shaped bureks of Albania.
Among the plethora of interesting and often vegetarian appetizers are four versions of the Greek toasted-cheese classic saganaki. The most unusual and delectable is “a la Zagora” ($8), named after a sparsely populated Epirus locale, whose town of Yannina you might recognize from the disappointing bread pumpkin in the previous paragraph. The saganaki is a masterpiece—sheep’s milk kasseri cheese heaped with crushed walnuts and wetted with an agreeable sage-ouzo sauce, with slices of stewed apple providing sweetness. We also went nuts for the Cypriot-style halloumi saganaki (goat cheese with pears and muscat wine), though the colorful-sounding Gypsy feta saganaki, featuring tomato sauce and oregano, proved almost repulsive. No offense intended to Gypsies, of course.