Greek Restaurants In New York: The Branzino Follies

07/13/2010 02:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

$100 to $175 for dinner for two? With entrees of simply prepared Greek-style grilled fish? I don't know about this.

I was first introduced to Greek food by a couple of Greek-American guys I worked with at the beginning of the sixties, Stanley Anton and Chris Gianakos. There may have been some fancy Greek restaurants in the city then, but for them, and thus for me, Greek food meant two places in the west Forties, Molfeta's and The Paradise.

The food was cheap and the food was good. Molfeta's was a steam table place that looked like a coffee shop. They renovated along the way and when they were done it still looked like a coffee shop. The Paradise was classier in decor and you didn't stand on line to choose your food, they had waiter service. It was at The Paradise I first ate a feta cheese omelette. I then went to Greece with Chris and tried to order it and they never heard of a feta cheese omelette, an American invention. They would bring an omelette with a piece of feta on top of it.

Molfeta's and The Paradise are long gone. I miss those places from another time and another price point for Greek food. In Manhattan one relatively inexpensive Greek restaurant is Uncle Nick's, not far from where Molfeta's was located. I went there pre-theater a while ago and it was so hectic and the food was so awful I would have been able to match it by ordering a Greek dish as take-out from any Greek-run coffee shop and eating it on the A train.

Today's Greek restaurants, especially those in Manhattan serving grilled fish as a specialty, are extremely pricey operations, places like Estiatorio Milos, Molyvos, Trata Estiatorio, Persephone. Those restaurants and many others in New York serve good, fresh grilled fish. Here's the thing, though. It's grilled fish. For those prices, what kind of cooking is actually going on?

Take Eleven Madison Park by contrast. It's even more expensive. It is, though, a New York Times four star restaurant and there's probably not a single dish that comes out of the kitchen that you, unless you're an outstanding chef yourself, could make at home. It's on some other level of cuisine, which is why you're there, and why you pay the prices. To pay what you're paying in those Greek restaurants for a whole grilled fish? You can make it at home with no real cooking skills.

You ask your fish store to clean a whole branzino, European sea bass. Then you place some fresh garlic, rosemary and olive oil in the cavity, drizzle the outside of the fish with olive oil, place it in the broiler section of your oven and keep turning it and drizzling it with olive oil until the skin looks crispy, and you'll have a delicious fish, fairly comparable to what they're serving you at those prices in the fancy Greek restaurants.

Okay, you go out to eat to go out to eat. You're paying for essentially renting space in a restaurant while enjoying the ambience and specifically the food they've prepared. Granted. But how much is fair to charge for simple grilled fish cooking? $100 to $175 for two people doesn't seem right to me. Let's stay with our friend the branzino for a moment. Many of the Greek restaurants have adopted a policy of not listing fixed prices on the menu for certain dishes, rather they say, "M/P" for market price. Whose market? What price? I went into Citarella's recently and bought a dinner-sized whole branzino for $8. So in the first place, these restaurants aren't doing much in the way of cooking -- it's something you could do at home -- and second, if they buy a fish wholesale that you can buy retail for only $8, you've been seriously, seriously marked up.

All this is why if I want to eat grilled fish Greek-style I stay away from the Manhattan mark-up scene. Like so many others, I go to Astoria where you have several choices including Stamatis, Philoxenia, Elias Corner, Telly's Taverna, Taverna Kyclades. But beware of the service at Elias Corner. They're like the rude Jewish deli waiters from the old days, but not as funny.

The raffish ambience of the Astoria Greeks is certainly not the same as the Manhattan venues, and you have to get there. However, for Milos, the Zagat listing on the price of dinner for one person with a drink and tip is $82. For Kyclades, which is rated by Zagat just under Milos for food, the price listing is $36. Is it worth the trip to Astoria, a half hour or so by subway from 59th and Lexington Avenue? I think so.

The signature grilled fish selections at Kyclades are superb. In the warm weather, the patio and the outdoor tables give you the feeling you really are eating at a taverna. Remember when people used to judge restaurants in Chinatown based on how many Chinese people were eating there? I don't know how much it means, but I've never been to Kyclades when I wasn't sitting near people speaking Greek and ordering copious amounts of food.

The problem with Kyclades is it's always crowded. My suggestion is do what I did recently. Go at an off hour. Have a late lunch or an early, early bird. Like four on a weekend afternoon. Fish at four? Why not? If it feels like too much food at that hour, split a whole fish with a friend and it gets really inexpensive.

Rethink your branzino. Paying all that money in Manhattan -- it's almost an ethical issue.

Kyclades Taverna, 33-07 Ditmars Blvd., 718-545-8666. N or W train to Ditmars Blvd., 1/2 block to Ditmars, turn right for 1 1/2 blocks.


Greek Food