Saturday, March 26, 2011

Greek Inspiration: From Kyclades to My Kitchen

It’s official. I was supposed to be Greek. How do I know? Its cuisine courses through my veins. Hook me up to an IV and I’m set. While born in the wrong country, luckily I am still able to guiltlessly gorge on the Mediterranean diet that could sustain me all day everyday by way of Taverna Kyclades. Touted as the best seafood in the city (all boroughs included), I decided to taste test what all the hype was about. Judging from the seeming-like-forever wait time and constant cluster of bodies spilling out on to the sidewalk hounding their prospective tables, I was hopeful that the trek to Astoria, Queens would not be in vain.

Chunky Greek Salad
Clams
Octopus
Vanity was the last thing on my mind as I gluttonously scooped heaping fork- (and spoon-) fulls of Greek goodness into my mouth one Saturday evening. Okay, wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. My two guests and I arrived at the restaurant with a “modest” wait of 30 minutes. Passing the time at a nearby bar felt like an eternity, especially when I was craving a whole Bronzino on the bone. (I was on a mission, resulting in tunnel vision focus at the task at hand: a sensory seafood experience.) After receiving the phone call that our table was ready (they are kind enough to that), we felt like we won a lottery drawing. They finally picked us! All too quickly we abandoned the bar and cantered over to claim our table. A lovely one, it was in the “outdoor” patio seating that is thankfully enclosed by a tent and heat lamp warmth in winter months. As soon as I sat and saw the heaping bowl of thick lemon wedges for the taking, I knew I was home. Nothing could be more up my alley than endless lemon at my disposal - and not the rinky-dink sliced cocktail kind that you can't possibly squeeze any juice out of. (I had a feeling they don’t use much more than this to flavor their fish and I dug it already.) With that little pleasure noted, now the deliberation: what to order. Of course, we share everything (as good company always should), and of course, ordered more than the per person standard. My question to the no B.S. waiter if we ordered enough received a quick and curt “more than enough” with a slight mocking widening of the eyes. Ha, we’ll show him. If he only knew what we are capable of.

So the winning spread amounted to this: Appetizers were a “small” Greek salad with the freshest chunks of feta you could imagine, rotund lima beans with carrots in a subtle tomato sauce, heavenly grilled octopus, with thickly sliced cucumber, and grilled clams in fresh lemon and butter. Mains were classics; two whole fish grilled on the bone (Is there any other way?), a Bronzino and a Red Snapper that were each accompanied by generous sides of roasted lemon potatoes and garlic-sautéed beet chunks. The portions were larger than I could have conceived but our warrior stomachs did not fail us. The aftermath was a war zone, but we came out victorious. And to the victor go the spoils.

Before
After
Bone-in Bronzino
Lovely Lima Beans
Beets
The overall flavors of every dish were simple and fresh. That’s their secret. Anti-superfluous. No fancy concoctions or overly done sauces to mask the food. Because when you have good quality food, you don’t need anything else. Kyclades couldn’t be more certain of this, and neither could I. The seafood always emanated its own essence, enjoying a squeeze of fresh lemon and a drizzle of fruity olive oil. And the non-fish dishes were just as simply composed - and devoured. Who knew lima beans could be so satisfying in their meaty yet buttery consistency, paralleled by the velvety octopus that I could not get enough of (that portion could stand to be bigger, we all firmly concurred). And beets with garlic - what a concept! I was so taken with the preparation of this root that the inspiration followed me back to my kitchen. But not before we all enjoyed our sizeable portions of complimentary dessert - well, isn’t that sweet? Viscous, silky custard enveloped in sweet flaky, Filo dough and heavily powdered with aromatic cinnamon. Can you say, gone in sixty seconds? Satisfied is an understatement. So much so, I could not come to grips with the fact that the meal had ended. I refused. I was in denial. Just one more dish, please. So, I decided it was to be continued…

Dessert Custard
This is what I call being proactive. I had to take matters into my own hands, and into my own kitchen for that matter. Now my mama didn’t raise no fool. I was not under any guise that I could recreate Kyclades supremacy. To expect that would be far too ambitious. (I have yet to tackle preparing a whole fish on the bone.) But I could definitely use it as inspiration - and I did.

I always have beets at the house and I was enamored with its garlic pairing at the restaurant. So I thought to myself, Self, what seafood is a staple with garlic? Why, shrimp of course! And I just so happened to have a pound in my freezer. A la shrimp scampi, substituting olive oil or butter with rosé wine, I created a lovely sauce with lots o’ garlic, diced onions and, what else…beets. The combination was superb. And while I did not have lima beans in stock, I did have lentils, the next best thing. Instead of serving them in tact, I heated them up with some zucchini, onions, and a generous amount of curry powder. One minute in the Magic Bullet later, I had me one fine currylicious bean puree that complemented the shrimp and beets better than I could have forseen. And for a little roughage, a sensible spinach salad was on call, monochromatically green with avocado and cucumber, and a snow-white coat of crumbled feta. Hey, gotta keep it Greek. The dish trio was a sensation, a true crowd-pleaser (and by crowd I mean my plus one and me) and could not have been more simple. I kept each dish to three ingredients or less (which is very rare for me, as I always get overzealous with ingredient combinations) and it actually turned out some great stuff. Sometimes all you need is a spread that is a straight to the tongue. No fluff. No embellishments. A lesson from the School of Kyclades. I am but your humble student. So when’s the next (taste) test?
Curried Lentil Puree
Green "Greek" Salad
Garlic Shrimp 'n' Beets