Last Tuesday we started a string of business meals at the western end of the culinary Silk Road and wrapped up at the other. Early lunch was at Okeanos, a Greek restaurant on the south end of Seventh Avenue in Park Slope that is positioning itself to become a Molyvos of Brooklyn, featuring an extensive list of hard-to-find Greek wines and celebrating the island cuisine’s simultaneous simplicity and richness.
Okeanos has been open for a couple of years, and is going through a recent revamp at the hand of Stephanie Voulgaris, who has a long hospitality biz resume, trained as a pastry chef at the Culinary Institute of America (her forte was pulled sugar), and is part of the exclusive sisterhood of women sommeliers from Greece.
Today, Voulgaris sings the praises of the Tri-state farms her chef is buying from, as well as the fish purveyors they dealt with at Hunts Point.
So, she suggested a multi-course offering (each paired with a Greek wine) that started with a plate of traditional dips like tzatziki, taramasalata (fish roe), skordalia (garlic and potato), melitzanosalata, (eggplant), hummus, and the very tasty htipiti (red pepper and feta). In a symphony of small plates, out came some perfect grilled octopus as well as feta flambee, pastitsio (the traditional macaroni pie with feta and minced meat sauce topped with creamy bechamel sauce) a grilled fish course with plates of cooked dandelion greens, roasted potatoes, and a tomato, carrot and onion stew.
By this fifth delicious course, and fortified with our fifth taste of wine, we did feel like we were on a beach in the Mediterranean, even though it was pissing rain and cold outside. We were surrounded by Okeanos’s regular lunch customers (dinner is even more crowded) who, by the smiles on their faces, appeared to be feeling the same. Our waiter, an actor back in Greece, articulated the Greek name of every dish and wine, and regaled the bar customers in their home language. Voulgaris, a perfectionist who says she is still massaging her menu and dinner service, has her sights on wine dinners, wine classes, and a selection of ouzo-based cocktails.
One of the owners, whose family is originally from the island of Ios (the view from which adorns a mural in the back dining room) has a history in the restaurant business, owning a donut shop and other food businesses around New York City. The family didn’t want to open another “taverna or diner,” but something that felt more like a place where you’d get an excellent meal you might get back in the mother land, where the cuisine is “very simple.” He listed “olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper,” as the only essential ingredients. A description a bit later added dill and cinnamon to the mix.
Stephanie said about 10 percent of their customers are Greek and about 90 percent are from the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhood.
We finished with Greek coffee (not the type in the Acropolis cup), flaky and sticky baklava and a sweet red dessert wine. (“This is a MAV-RO-DAPH-NE from PAT-RAS,” our waiter said.) One of our dining companions described it as “Port-lite.”
Several hours and subway trains later, we found ourselves in Midtown, with only a bit of time to spare before our bus ride back home. So, we took a seat at very new bar at Walle restaurant and lounge at 239 E. 53rd. This much-anticipated Chinese restaurant from Wally Chin features Chef Chris Cheung, who we met at the Lower East Side Dumpling Festival last year.
According to an early report from Florence Fabricant, Chin’s vision was “a place that ventures beyond a classic Chinese menu,” and Chef Cheung doesn’t disappoint, with beautifully constructed dishes like fried oysters, lobster dumplings and foie gras buns. When we asked owner Chin the style of the dumplings, he joked, perhaps thinking of Passover, “It’s kosher.” (He followed by explaining that it was a bao shape and recipe that became popularized in America.)
The menu is seafood-rich with a selection of four to five daily shellfish offerings that can be done cold or hot. We opted for the soft-shell clams, which we haven’t had since a late fall meal at the Clam Bar on the Napeague Stretch in Long Island. Chin, who was pressing palms with friends and customers from his other restaurants, watched us closely as we dipped in, and advised one of us to take the skin off the phallic end of one of the clams. “You don’t eat that,” he said (even though sometimes we do). “You know,” he said, “that’s why they call them piss clams.”