November 26, 2018 | BITE: My Journal
Eléa: Pikilia and Gigantes on West 85th Street
Each zucchini and eggplant chip is fried separately to make this crunchy, shareable tower.
Eléa had been promising to open for months. But projected launches are often off, sometimes by a year or more. When I read that the “True Greek” seedling of Kyma was finally showing signs of life on two floors at West 85th Street, I signaled three friends and rushed in.
We walk around the big central bar to get to our secluded table.
I am not the only optimist in a zip code that craves more lofty restaurant ambitions. With its busy bar, its blue- and-white painted seating and upturned basket lights overhead, the place looks good, upscale even, not a likely Upper Westside characteristic. Eléa means olive.
Lavraki is whole grilled Mediterranean sea bass.
Transplanted floorwalkers are eager but seem a little nervous. “I must get my tushy to the next table,” one says after lingering a bit long with us to boost of chef David Peretz’s Milos credential.
“You might find out the Greek for tushy,” I suggest.
I can’t resist the tasting of three classic Greek spreads.
I can’t get past the “Pikilia,” at the top of the menu. I’ve never seen the word before. (It means “assortment.”) I always like the idea of Middle Eastern spreads as a starter. I choose marinated chickpea hummus with coriander, a spicy feta spread with Aleppo pepper, and skordalia, blended almond and garlic, for the listed “tasting of 3 spreads, $16.”
Chickpea hummus is primed with smoked paprika, marinated chickpeas and coriander.
I try to order a fourth, tzatziki, a la carte, but the waiter points out it will come with our Eléa chips -- a pyramid of eggplant and zucchini crisps delivered with three little tangles of fried kefalograviera cheese. “We’re four people,” I point out. “You need to add another cheese thing. Charge us, of course.”
One evening I notice that this giant olive urn has appeared in a corner near the table we share.
The waiter brings toasted pita for the spreads, but two small warm rounds of bread with a dish of olives on wooden platters -- wonderful bread -- strike me as an excellent carrier for the spreads too. When my companions slow down because they’ve eaten enough, I feel compelled to finish everything. I love it all, the spreads, the crisps, the odd little cheese dumplings, especially the brown bread.
It’s baked in house, it seems, made with zeia flour imported from Greece and sold in Astoria, one of the managers tells us. “It’s a farro grain with carob flour and rye,” another explains later: “We made up the mix exclusively for the bread of Eléa.”
Eléa's Pastitio is made with seasonal mushrooms and creamy béchamel.
Pastitsio is enough like macaroni --“baked with seasonal mushrooms and béchamel,” the menu describes it. I must try that too. My friends are fixated on the lamb chops. “We don’t have the lamb tonight,” we’re told. They settle on “Greek Chicken.” What makes it Greek? Perhaps the feta in the Yukon Gold potato purée. We have to ask for serving pieces once or twice. I wonder…don’t other people share the way we do?
Baklava at Eléa isn't as sweet as others I've tried.
Cherry Sweet Spoon jam and walnuts top the Greek yogurt.
The Greek yogurt comes with walnut and honey or Cherry Sweet Spoon jam. Bob wants both. I order the baklava with almonds and Greek honey. It’s not as sweet as the Arabic version might be, but sweet enough for that last bite of a satisfying dinner. (And the desserts are a gift.) Outside, less than a mile from home, Bob gallantly insists on ordering an Uber for me because it’s raining.
We ordered the yellowfin tuna tartare at a second dinner.
I’m back five days later with relatives from out of town, eager to explore more of the menu, but unable to deprive them of the eggplant and zucchini chips. Five of us also share roasted cauliflower fritters with pine nuts, honey and currants, and yellowfin tuna tartare with Serrano chili and Mandarin olive oil.
Our starters are taking forever to come. “We’re having problems in the kitchen,” our waitress admits.
Gigantes plaki, braised beans, are a side cooked with tomato and herbs and tossed with crumbled feta.
“We ordered the chips half an hour ago,” I complain.
“They have to fry them to order and pile them up one at a time,” she reports. “And every table wants them.”
My companions are ordering their third drink: the Kymatini, a midnight mojito, and the Dirty Greek Vodka. I’m not sure why I stopped drinking a few months ago. To save calories for wanton indulgence, pastitsio, I guess and the marvelous bread here.
Greek fries accompany the char-grilled lamb chops.
The meal drags on. Eventually the lamb chops arrive (rare as ordered). the whole grilled Mediterranean sea bass and the red-wine braised short rib with baked orzo. I promise myself to give Eléa time to shape up before I return. But a friend who hasn’t been asks if I can get a table. And here I am again the following week.
On a second try the grilled sausage with sweet onions and peppers is even better than the earlier version.
We share the cauliflower fritters, grilled sausage with onions and peppers and the shaved Brussels sprouts salad, which lasts and lasts right through the baked pasta and braised short rib. Maybe I’ve not ordered enough. “Bring us the Greek fries,” I tell the server. “We like them extra dark and extra crispy with ketchup and mayonnaise.”
This was the dinner where I felt I hadn’t ordered enough food and the fries needed to go back for crisping.
A runner delivers a side of pale fries. Our waitress gets pale too when I tell her to take them back and get the kitchen to do them dark and crisp. Eventually she returns. The fries are perfect. “I got my supervisor to ask the chef to do them again,” she tells us, pleased with her instinct for self-preservation.
On each visit someone insisted on the shaved Brussel sprouts salad with almonds, currants, mint and cheese.
I sense Eléa is on the verge of becoming the “upscale neighborhood tavern” I hoped it would be when I call a week ahead and can’t get a table. I try using my own name and draw a blank from the reservationist. A friend who knows one of the partners agrees to intercede.
What is Greek about Greek chicken? Maybe it’s the feta in the Yukon gold potato purée served alongside.
He joins us in the same sheltered corner we had the night the kitchen was drowning. “Can we order now and talk later?” I beg my pals. “The food can take forever here.” One of the roving partners overhears me. His name is Herodotus. Yes, like the ancient Greek historian who wrote on the Greco-Persian wars.
Red wine braised short rib sits on baked orzo with kefalagraviera cheese.
The loaves are really warm tonight. They come before the cocktails and beer. Starters soon occupy every bare spot on the table. We order too much: Chips, sausage, shaved Brussels sprouts salad. Herodotus himself clears. The pause for entrees is almost reasonable. When our waitress seems confused, Herodotus steps in.
Juicy Prince Edward Island mussels are delicious tossed with tomato and herbs in ouzo with fennel and feta.
With the delicately soupy seafood risotto and the short ribs, we also discover the treat of plump Prince Edward mussels saganaki with tomato, fennel, ouzo, and feta. I scoop up the broth in an empty shell. (Rained in at home a few days later, I long for those mussels.)
This classic Greek dessert, galacktoboureko, is semolina custard in filo coated with clear sweet sugar syrup.
Desserts -- ekmek (shredded kataifi dough baked crisp and topped with custard and pistachios), baklava and yogurt with honey and nuts -- are on the house again. Lyn seems enchanted by the idea of a man named Herodotus. I will share his cell number for times when the reservationist can’t find me a table.
217 West 85th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. 212 369 9800. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday 4:30 pm to 10 pm Thursday through Sunday 4:30 pm to 11 pm.
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