The previous tenant in the sprawling corner space at Second Avenue and 2nd Street was Heartbreak. True to its name, the place closed two days before receiving its coveted Michelin star. The fare was Germanic—including a gravy-drenched beef rib the size of a cudgel—but the interior, paved in poured concrete and flaunting red accents, felt like a Swiss bus station.
Now Heartbreak owner Christos Valtzoglou has debuted Boukiés, a Greek spot in the reconfigured premises. Although the food can be remarkable, the space remains badly laid out, a challenging labyrinth of wicker chairs and tiny tables that force you to tack back and forth like Odysseus’s galley to visit the bathrooms. Watch out for the Minotaur!
But let’s reconnoiter a moment. Although Valtzoglou owns Pylos, a small Greek bistro just off Tompkins Square, Boukiés isn’t a bistro—it lacks intimacy and ethnic charm. Nor is it one of those Greek whole-fish places that cost you an arm and a leg. Instead, Boukiés (“Small Bites”) concentrates on the short dishes found in Greek tavernas—while eschewing that label in favor of a more cocktail lounge-y identity. Maybe we’re witnessing the birth of the Greek tapas bar. Indeed, the menu offers only two entrées: one a grilled fish, the other a great four-chop rack of lamb opulently furnished with lemon potatoes and broccoli rabe ($24).
With much fanfare, Boukiés touts its consulting chef, cookbook author and TV personality Diane Kochilas. But if you read her blurb on the restaurant’s website, you’ll conclude she has her fingers in so many spinach pies that her actual engagement in the establishment is probably marginal. Rather, the little flourishes that sometimes make the meze amazing are likely owing to Steffen Sander, the German-born, Asian-trained chef. His international perspective tremendously enlivens a menu that might otherwise seem ho-hum.
A quartet of grilled sardines ($14), for example, arrives garnished with tomato confit—little strips of sweet red sunshine laid across the fish crosswise. But Sander knows when to leave things well enough alone, too, as seen in a heaping plate of sprats that he has the good sense to flour only lightly before frying. Crunch the tasty heads. The same section of the menu—one of seven featuring small plates—also has a barely concealed bomb: mussels saganaki ($14), a misbegotten cluster fuck of bivalves, tomato sauce, and sharp cheese. It looks like a shipwreck and tastes like one, too. (I’m with the Italians in prohibiting seafood-cheese combos.)
The most exciting part of the menu is Pitarakia, those savory phyllo pastries of which spanakopita is the most well-known. You can get pies filled with feta and drizzled with honey or ones enwrapping an herby seafood combo. The best stuffing is a mushroom medley attributed to the Greek mainland. Somewhat oddly, the spinach pie is not found with its pastry brethren, but among Meze Classics. Incorporating cheese in addition to greens, the four stacked right triangles sail in garnished with micro greens. All phyllo pies are fried rather than baked, leading to a breathtaking brownness.
You can skip the leadoff section called Small Bites, which features stuffed grape leaves served stone cold and Tuscan-style topped toasts. Instead, hasten over to the meat-bearing meze. In order of delectability, you might first select a pair of small pita sandwiches ($12) bulging with unctuous lamb and so good you’ll be dreaming about them the minute your head hits the pillow. Ignore the cheese dip that comes alongside—it tastes a little too much like Boursin—or use it on the table bread.
Another triumph from the meat division, believe it or not, is meatballs ($13). These are coarsely ground, flattened, supremely moist, and served in a kooky sauce of red wine and prunes. Not only does the gravy taste pleasantly sweet and tart, it’ll help keep you regular. Although generously served, the stuffed eggplant dolmas are like hangdog enchiladas, the filling like something from a sloppy joe.
Strange for a place that resembles a cocktail lounge, there are no cocktails. Instead, find a fine selection of oft-underappreciated Greek wines, which are often also underpriced—though not at Boukiés. Nevertheless, spring for a glass of the excellent red Xinomavro ($9), which exhibits as much saturation as a Tuscan Brunello or California cab, or try the striking white Cretan Malvasia ($8), flaunting sharp citrusy flavors. Unfortunately, all but five bottles of the 50 on the list are priced at $35 and up, with a mean price of $45. So sadly, you might find your boat beached when it comes to exploring the full riches of Greek viniculture.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.