Nobody’s sure who made the first moussaka. The Greeks claim the Arabs brought it to Greece in the Middle Ages along with eggplant. The Arabs believe their meatless version is an adaptation of a recipe they learned from the Greeks. Either way, the moussaka at a Greek café in Bay Ridge named Plaka is spectacular. Alternating layers of eggplant and cinnamon-scented ground beef are surmounted by a thick layer of béchamel, a custardy white topping that got me thinking about clouds. The béchamel looked like a cirrus cloud as it raced across the top of the moussaka. A pitcher of plain tomato sauce stood ready to provide extra moisture.
Flogging gyros and kebabs on a faded outdoor sign, Plaka has dominated the corner of 86th Street and Fourth Avenue for as long as anyone can remember. The prime location, just above an R train stop, guarantees there’s a steady stream of commuters coming out of the station, passing through Plaka as if through a turnstile, then emerging with a gyro in one hand. As if the faded sign were not enough advertisement, a grease-smeared window allows you to look into the kitchen at kebabs seductively sputtering on a blackened grill. The menu refers to these kebabs as “charcoal grilled,” but that should be modified to read “flame grilled over fake charcoal.”
Inside, tables with checked cloths are arranged on two levels. The table nearest the door is occupied by a TV with a twisted wire coat hanger for an antenna, and when was the last time you saw that? The set seems perpetually tuned to Wheel of Fortune, which conveniently espouses the principals of ancient Greek philosophy in a compact and easily accessible form: Who needs Plato when you’ve got WOF? Other décor includes the requisite color likeness of the Parthenon and a pair of kraters, the tapered clay vessels in which Odysseus once mixed wine and water, making him one of the earliest bartenders.
In response to my question about the name, the waitress replied: “Plaka is a neighborhood in Athens—you know, like midtown.” “It’s more like East Village,” a friend piped up. Plaka is indeed the oldest section of the city, hemmed in by mountains on the Attic plain. Many Plaka streets are closed to pedestrians, and, before it hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics, the area was known for its lively nightclubs and cheap eateries. The neighborhood’s appeal has been largely obliterated by gentrification.
Plaka offers a menu that would not be out of place in its namesake neighborhood: grilled meats, garlicky bread dips, pita sandwiches, and meal-size salads, avoiding the fish obsession of Astorian Greek restaurants that specialize in island cooking. You can’t go wrong with the pork shish kebabs ($11.25), two skewers of pleasantly fatty meat. Also eminently scarfable is a mixed grill ($14.25) that includes a beef kebab, a mess of decent lamb gyro, and—in a tip of the hat to the surrounding neighborhood—an Italian sausage. Oh, blessed fusion!
It’s my sad duty to advise you to skip the lamb chops ($18.25). Though the serving of four thick chops is beyond generous, their flavor is sadly lacking. Of the starches available in the deal, I’d go for the lemon potatoes rather than the pale fries or ho-hum rice. A Greek salad also comes along with the entrées. Dose it liberally with the olive oil and red-wine vinegar provided on the table, and don’t forget plenty of salt and pepper.
Running alongside the galeo ($13.95) like a mid-altitude stratocumulus, the skordalia is as cloudlike as the béchamel. Skordalia is a lemony potato dip laced with megatons of raw garlic. Galeo is a fish known in English as sand shark or sand tiger. This Plaka special is available so regularly that it occupies a permanent place of honor on the menu, tucked inside a little plastic window. The fish flesh is firm and bright white and slightly tangy, and Plaka fries it in thick, skin-on cross sections. The zing of skordalia boosts the subtle flavor of the shark.
Our favorite app was probably saganaki ($10.50), a big plank of sheep’s-milk kasseri cheese deposited in a crock and set aflame with brandy. Eagerly we dipped our pitas in the melty white mass, which oozed oil that provided further lubrication. And as we ate it, the cheese reminded us of a low-lying nimbostratus cloud, auguring rain.