“Very cool!” says my friend, eagerly dipping his triangles of fresh pita bread into the Kyra Orektika (house made spreads) neatly tucked into five white, geometric ceramic squares before us.
We are at Ammos Estiatorio in New York, an elegant Greek restaurant on Vanderbilt Avenue near Grand Central Station on a summer night, the kind of steamy night that motivated Marilyn Monroe to catch a breeze over a subway vent in The Seven Year Itch.
“During the day this place is packed,” says my friend, nodding towards the nearly full-sized windows. “Lots of people from the high rise offices come here to see and be seen.” Tonight, though, we are dinning on a Friday night in the midst of summer when the typical fashionable lunch crowd has flocked to the Hamptons, which is fine, since we have the luxury of attentive, first rate service (thanks George!) and incredibly great cuisine.
If lunchtime is a bustling scene, then dinner is candlelit and sedate. The large windows look out over Vanderbilt Street. The two-tier dining room is airy and bright, and decorated to resemble a Greek Taverna, complete with umbrellas set up around the room as if it were an outdoor café on the shores of Santorini.
Chef David Ogren is at the helm here, a young, enthusiastic chef who had the intriguing idea of creating a mostly Greek menu spiked with spices of North Africa and other Mediterranean flavors. Appetizers are amazing. To get the full scope of Chef Ogren’s talents, you must start out with house made spreads, pretty to look at and tasty on the palate. For $5 you get a white vessel containing five spreads: a chickpea/Kalamata spread like hummus, ground almond and garlic in a potato base, Greek yogurt with mint and cucumber, roasted red pepper with Feta cheese, and roasted eggplant with dill served up with fresh grilled pita bread.
So far, so good – and this is just the beginning.
You must try the Octapodi, grilled octopus served with shaved fennel and green olives ($13). Very tender and succulent, this amazing dish is as good as anything you can get in the Mediterranean. Next to that, I really liked the Horiatiki ($16), a gorgeous, vibrant salad of Beefsteak tomatoes, cucumber, peppers, onions, and feta, a simple dish that looks like a colorful fiesta in a bowl.
Halloumi ($14), skillet fried Cypriot cheese with arugula, Culatello (a specialized dried ham from Italy), and lemon is good but could not equal the Ocupodi (as if anything really could). Correct that! Ocupodi has met its match in the Sikoti, cast iron seared Foie Gras with Indian spices. The juicy, plump liver is tenderly grilled yet has a deliciously subtle charred taste and is incredibly succulent. It is served with pistachio, sweet cherries and popped corn that adds texture and crunch.
When I booked a table I already knew what I wanted as an entree – grilled Dorade. Here the gorgeously presented fish (head on) arrives on a geometric white plate with sea salt and other seasonings on the side. Absolutely one of the top grilled Dorade I had experienced in this city. You can choose from other fish as well, including lesser-known Greek and Mediterranean specialties the waiter can describe to you ($25 – $37). My friend ordered the Rizo pasta ($22), which is a Greek, very well made style of risotto featuring fresh Spring peas, Feta, mint, and tomato. The texture of the rice was fine grained and delicate, held together by the creamy Feta.
Order carefully, as you will want to save room for the cheese plate, and even a dessert plate, to come. As I am getting a professional designation in cheese, I was curious to see what kind of cheeses would be on the $14 dollar Murray’s Cheese Selection. Our plate, large enough to share, included five glistening, scrumptious slices of cheese. Along side of it was a breadbasket that consisted of several favorites: rosemary spiked flatbread, moist-looking olive and rosemary rolls, crostini, and more. One can easily make a meal from an appetizer and cheese plate alone.
My friend and I found our forks fighting over the creamy Tellegio, a cow’s milk cheese from Lombardia, Italy. Next to that, we both loved the RocBlue, a Brie-like Blue Cow’s milk from France. Other cheeses included La Tur, a triple milk cheese from Piedmont, Italy, Manouri, a sheep’s milk cheese from T. Voikos, Greece, and Volencay, a goat’s milk cheese from Spain.
Hold up! Remember that part of the fun of finding a great cheese plate like this is the ability to match it with wines from the extensive by-the-glass list. Go high end and order the $21 “Cumaro” Umani Ronchi Rosso Conero from Marche, Italy, and its black cherry, plum and blueberry flavors and medium weight texture pairs nicely with all cheeses. Or try the value-priced Altos de Tamaron Ribera del Duero from Spain ($8) or spicy, delicious Salice Salentino Rosso Reserva, Taurino, from Apulia Italy ($9).
If you prefer to order wine by the bottle, you will find an extensive wine list that includes an array of fine red and white Greek wines as well as the usual international hit list. Italian red wines seem to dominate the list, with many values from $40 – $80.
Dinner at Ammos is not complete without dessert, and you will find many to choose from (all desserts – $9) including traditional items like Baklava with honey-saturated shredded dough, walnuts, almonds, and pistachio ice cream – our absolute favorite. Coming a close second was the peaches and cream parfait, with local strawberries, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and madelines. Chocolate lovers might indulge in the rich chocolate cake with peanut butter and caramel popcorn (popcorn is big at this restaurant, I must ask chef Orgen about it!).
Ammos is great for a romantic dinner, yet next time I come I’d be sure to bring a group so we can order several items with wild abandon from this exotic and delicious menu. The appetizers are large enough for two to share, and even though this very elegant restaurant with its gorgeous interior and excellently trained staff isn’t the type of place where one could comfortably dip a fork into a friend’s plate, I’d risk it anyway – the cuisine is just that good.
If you work near the area, be sure to come for lunch. I certainly will now that my friend painted such a vibrant picture of Ammos at high noon. You will discover items by a la carte and a $28 price fixe lunch including a choice of chilled tomato soup or baby arugula salad, a choice of local striped bass with Heirloom tomatoes, chicken, or lamb T-bone chops, and a desert of yogurt and sweet cherries.
Go ahead, order a glass of the “Ode Panos” Brut, Moschofilero, Spiropoulis to help perpetrate the fantasy you are in a Oceanside Taverna in Greece. Just don’t get carried away. Your Blackberry will be buzzing again before you know it.
52 Vanderbilt Avenue
New York, NY 10017