Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ethos Authentic Greek Cuisine

Although I’m learning to really love my newly adopted hometown of Stamford, I do occasionally trek outside the confines of Fairfield County to experience what the surrounding areas have to offer. After all, good food can be had just about anywhere. Then again, so can bad food.

So it was no surprise that I was thrilled to once again venture into New York City for a Sunday afternoon brunch at a Greek restaurant and to finally meet Christina, an ex-colleague of my husband Maarten’s and also a native of Athens, Greece. Having eaten Greek food before, but not being the most prolific in my knowledge of the cuisine, Christina was recruited to select a few places that she thought would be worthy of our stomachs. Of the three restaurants that she had previously dined at, the ultimate decision on where to go was placed in my capable hands, compliments of Maarten.

It was a tough decision. Food versus food versus, well, food. In the end, however, I chose Ethos.

Maarten and I arrived fifteen minutes early for our 1:00 o’clock brunch date so, as would be expected of us—well, actually, it would be expected of me—a cocktail was in order. I would be remiss if I dined in an ethnic restaurant and didn’t partake in that culture’s native drinks, food, etc., so I selected a glass of Greek white wine, Kouris Roditis. It possessed an amazingly fragrant taste—inasmuch as you can taste a bouquet—and the finish had just a touch of honey infusion. It was an excellent wine with a hint of fruit but without a fruity overplay.


Ethos is not a large restaurant, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in character, charisma and, of course culinary charm. The Greek music playing from the overhead speakers can be a bit loud at times, but not overly distracting, especially if you’re too busy to notice because you’re enjoying an authentic Greek dish and have no concerns about such minor frivolities.

Ethos’s menu boasts an exciting array of dishes, including soup, hot and cold appetizers, salads, fish, char-grilled selections, sides, dishes baked in a clay pot and specialties. Believe me when I tell you that it’s not easy coming to grips with what you want to order, but your diligence will pay off in the end.

Maarten and I waited until Christina’s arrival before ordering appetizers, and even then, after fifteen or twenty minutes of perusing the menu, our minds still weren’t firmly made up. Would it be hot or cold appetizers? Perhaps the Soup of the Day would suffice? The myriad of selections made my eyes cross in a fierce way. Spanikopita, a perennial Greek favorite of mine since I discovered the joy of spinach at the tender age of 43, was a good bet. However, I wanted to straddle that fine line between safe haven and out of control (if perhaps only in my mind). I walked the proverbial tight rope and lived to tell about it: I ordered the Ethos Saganaki. Maarten ordered Halloumi—another favorite of mine—and I mentally steeled myself to be resistant to the charms of the cheese lest I eat it all before he would even get half an opportunity to indulge in his own treat. Christina played it safe and healthy and had the Elliniki, the classic Greek salad. Her resolve put me to shame as, pig that I am, I wanted to order the Kalamari Yemisto in addition to the saganaki.

The Halloumi was the first plate to arrive. I bit down hard on my tongue, sat on my hands and vowed not to swallow all three pieces whole. The cheese—a lightly breaded imported Cypriot goat cheese—was as good as any I've ever had in life. The grill marks added a certain jolt of flavor that only a grill can. The thick cut of the Halloumi, which has the special trait of holding up to extreme heat and therefore doesn’t melt easily, was like a squeaky chunk of heaven in my mouth. That characteristic mildly salty twang makes this the perfect starter, especially when it’s warm and the flavors are bursting at the seams.

Not to be outdone, Christina’s Ellinki arrived. Who knew that a classic Greek salad could look so mouth-watering and tempting? This was indeed a fine-looking way to start a meal, and not a single shred of wilted lettuce in sight, but rather crisp pieces of romaine that crunched with exuberance. The triangular shaped plate was overflowing with vegetables that looked like they were picked fresh that morning. As luck would have it, the taste mirrored the appealing appearance. The vine-ripened tomatoes were luscious and juicy and, quite simply, enchanting. Olives, chunks of peeled cucumber, bits of onion and a hearty portion of feta cheese completed the salad.

When the Ethos Saganaki arrived, I was a little stunned. It didn’t look anything like what I was expecting. This was not the fault of Ethos, however, but rather a faux pas on my part as I had a totally different idea of what the appetizer would consist of. Isn’t it funny how you have your mouth set on one thing, and you don’t seem to be quite mentally prepared to switch gears in mid-swing when what you really wanted isn’t there? My smile actually faltered when the plate was placed on the table. Oh sure, I was prepared to be a good sport about it, but in my slightly closed mind I was not primed to like it. It wasn’t a particularly appetizing looking dish and closely resembled oatmeal with veggies, but I am nothing if not a culinary trooper (although I still refuse to eat anything that’s staring back at me). However, my disappointment quickly dissipated when I dipped the tip of the bread into the Saganaki, slowly and with a trembling hand put the tiny morsel in my mouth, and chewed tentatively. My worries were all for naught. The taste of the spicy melted feta cheese blended with tomatoes, fresh herbs and olive oil was a complete surprise to mouth. The thick and chunky texture was wildly satisfying, and despite the addition of hot pepper sauce, it wasn’t scorching to the taste buds at all. Now that’s what I’m talking ‘bout!

Once we finished devouring what was left on our plates, the table was cleared of all vestiges of the appetizers, utensils were shifted about and cups and condiment dishes were rearranged to make room the entrées. While we waited, Maarten and Christina played catch-up after losing contact with one another for a number of years. Renewing old friendships—and making new ones—is a joy indeed.

Ordering our entrées was just as time-consuming as deciding upon the appetizers had been, but after deep concentration, careful consideration and a furrowed brow or two, we each decided on what we felt would be the epitome of broad daylight dining in a Greek restaurant in mid-town Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon. And when the plates were finally brought to the table, we knew that we had collectively made the right decision.

I’m not really sure what happened to the whole “ladies first” adage, because, once again, Maarten’s dish was placed on the table before mine or Christina’s. No worries; that just meant that his food was fair game and open to nibbling, chomping and your everyday garden variety pilfering at will. The Kotopoulo Skaras was char-grilled 1/2 free range chicken that looked more like steak on the plate than chicken. Normally, this particular meal is served with rice, but when asked about it, the waitress admitted that the rice was merely so-so. Her honesty was appreciated, and instead of mediocre grains of tasteless mush, Maarten opted for the side of Patates Tiganites—fresh cut fries with oregano. I have no idea what sort of natural disaster the rice at Ethos represents, but if you want to gift yourself with a happy mouth, be sure to try these delectable planks of seasoned potatoes. Just like milk, it does a body good. Crispy on the outside and suitably hot and creamy on the inside, these fries can hold their own against any other starch in the vicinity. And lest I forget . . . the chicken. My, oh my, what tender, flavorful and palatable chicken it was. The marinade and seasonings were perfect—not too salty, fiery or overpowering. And while Christina also ordered the Kotopoulo Skaras and opted not to accompany her dish with the rice, she overlooked the fries for seasoned okra, which, according to both her and Maarten, was a delightful taste sensation.

‘Tis true, the chicken that Maarten and Christina ate was worthy of accolades, but the praises that I could heap upon the Kotopoulo Giouvetsi would boggle the mind. You may wonder, in your quiet times of reflection and introspection, Just how good can a piece of chicken be? Well I’m not exactly sure how Ethos did it, and I won't be so presumptuous as to speculate what the chef was doing behind closed doors with his myriad of herbs, spices, tenderizers or juices, but chicken should be this luscious every day of the year. Had it been on a bone, it would have fallen clean off of it. The dish seemed simple enough: a boneless breast of chicken, perfectly baked in the oven, served on a blanket of orzo in a fresh tomato sauce, highlighted by crumbled feta cheese. However, this was anything but simple. The mingling of flavors danced in my mouth and literally compelled me to close my eyes, rock back and forth slightly and hum softly with delight. The tomato sauce, which was both salty and sweet, permeated the orzo and infused each tiny piece of pasta with a jolt of flavor. Taken as a whole, the Kotopoulo Giouvetsi was a near-masterpiece on a plate.

The meal would have been exceptional enough had we ended it on that palatable note. If only. As I rubbed my Buddha-belly, content in that Zen-like serenity that can only be replicated after having had a thoroughly enjoyable meal, I, too, thought the fete was over. However, it didn’t stop there. To my astonishment—and the sheer and utter elation of my stomach—the waitress placed an orange plate in the center of the table and, on the middle of that plate lay two striking, golden puffs of flaky, pastry-filled goodness. My mouth had never had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Galaktoboureko before, and I was quite pleased that the introduction had taken place. Where has this dessert been all my life? I’m not a novice at Greek cuisine—although, admittedly, I don’t eat it every day of the week—but how this little gem had escaped my taste buds up until that point will forever remain a mystery. And the best part of all? I didn’t even have to ask, dare I say beg, for it—it came to the table compliments of Ethos. Now, I’d like to say they did it because I’m such a spectacularly unique individual worthy of such a treat, but that would be a total and complete fabrication; they bless all of their customers with this special dessert after every meal.

Two and a half hours after stepping into the world of Ethos, I emerged a believer in what they were trying to accomplish—or, should I say, in what they actually did accomplish: Serving up appetizing food that leaves you wanting far more than the boundaries of your already-full stomach can handle.

Would I recommend Ethos? Without a doubt, Ethos comes highly recommended. And dare I say, I could probably make a special trip to NYC just for the cuisine.

Is Ethos a good value or do you need to take out a loan to eat here? Surprisingly, the prices at Ethos were not astronomical and provided ample value for the money, especially considering the quality of the food. The hot and cold appetizers ranged from a meager $6.50 (quite a few to choose from at this price) to $15.00 for the Kreatomezes (chicken breast, lamb chops, kefte and sausage). Although I declined to have any of the fish selections, they are priced by the pound, so how much you pay is totally dependent on how large or how small your fresh catch is. The remainder of the entrées are also affordably priced.

What about atmosphere and ambience? Ethos is small, but I know first-hand that good things come in tiny packages. The staff is friendly, attentive, and they do an admirable job of describing a dish that customers are unsure about (how it’s prepared, portion size, etc.). My personal pet peeve—loud music—was not stirred to the limit at Ethos and I didn’t get the feeling that I had just walked into a nightclub on a Saturday night.

495 3rd Avenue (between 33rd & 34th Street), New York, NY 10016  (212) 252-1972. Ethos also has two other locations in NY.

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