Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ethos, more than just pricey water at Starbucks

Last night my brother, his friend and I ventured to Ethos, a Greek restaurant in Murray Hill, for a lovely dinner to start our night out. I had read lots of good things about Ethos online, and I've wanted to go there for a long time. I wouldn't necessarily say it was a List restaurant in the technical sense-- I tend to reserve List designation for what would be called "reach" restaurants in the college-admissions parlance. That is, List restaurants are expensive or hard to get into or both. Ethos is really neither; I just hadn't gotten a chance to go there yet. So last night was the night.

We arrived a bit late for our 7:30 reservation (Manhattan traffic was a complete mess due to all the street fairs... so my previous post for more on that), but the host didn't seem to mind. We were led to a comfortable, high-backed booth in the back, weaving in between the tables along the way.

The restaurant had its front windows open to the lovely weather outside, so the temperature inside was cool but comfortable. The space was packed with tables and decor, but the small area managed not to seem cramped-- I think the high-backed booths probably helped a bit with that. Someone had certainly put a lot of thought into making this restaurant evoke Greece, with lots of exposed brick faux-distressed walls, trellises with vines, and so on. As we started our meal, there was ample light, but around 8:30 someone turned the lights down to "da club" status, which meant we could no longer see each other. We were about finished by that point anyway, but the moral here is if you want to be able to see your companions, go to Ethos on the earlier side (plus, by the time we left there was quite a long wait).

The interesting "Greek" decor

Fresh fish on ice, awaiting your order

Our waiter brought us menus. While my companions looked over the ample selection of food, I perused the wine list. The selection was small, but very, very affordable-- there were a number of bottles under $40, and even some under $30. On the recommendation from the waiter, we went with a Greek Sauvignon Blanc for $33. He disappeared and returned shortly with the bottle of wine and poured me a taste. The wine was good, but unfortunately it was about room temperature, which is not something I like in wine-- I like white wines, and I like them cold (probably too cold, if you're going to be technical about it). So I asked if he could chill the bottle a little bit, maybe bring out an ice bucket or something. He seemed to argue with me for a brief moment about whether the bottle was cold (um, it wasn't), and after a bit of disagreement about whether he had to return the bottle entirely-- that wasn't what I was asking for-- he realized I just wanted an ice bucket, brought it over, and plopped the bottle inside. Once we got past all the semantics (and the wine cooled down a little bit), it was actually a good selection, vibrant and sharp with an appetite-stimulating acidic bite.

Phew. On to the food. We placed our order after much hemming and hawwing, if you will. The Ethos menu is pretty large, and there's a lot on there that looks really good. One of my regrets is that I didn't get to try any of the Greek spreads, especially the hummus and melitzanosalata (which looked like babaghanouj). But we had to make a decision, and we didn't have all night, so we put a stake in the ground and chose.

While we waited for our food to arrive, a runner brought over a bread basket and a bottle of olive oil for dipping. Now, you know how important a bread basket is to me-- a restaurant with a bad bread basket is, by definition, a bad restaurant-- and Ethos's offering, which was stuffed with warm, soft pita and a couple of other varieties of bread, didn't disappoint. I skipped the slices of bread (looked like a type of white with a sesame-seed crust) for the pita, ripping small chunks off the wedge and dipping them in the oil. I think it was the best pita I've ever had.

Warm, tender, lovely pita

Once we were nearing the end of the bread basket, our food began to arrive. Perfect timing. My salad was up first, making me fear that they brought it out as an appetizer and I would have to finish it because my companions' food would arrive-- but no, the other dishes were close behind. I had ordered the Ethos Salata, requesting tomatoes instead of the grilled fennel (not my favorite vegetable, as I don't like the licorice-y taste) and the dressing on the side. What arrived was an ample plate of veggies, including a few surprises.

The Ethos Salata... sort of

The menu description of this salad is as follows: "Organic mixed greens with grilled fennel, sundried tomatoes, goat cheese and olives with Greek wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil." What I ultimately found on my plate was a large pile of mixed greens, with shredded carrots, thinly sliced red onion, raw strips of green pepper, and a few roasted red peppers mixed in, topped with chunks of tomato, a few sundried tomatoes, and three olives. Along the sides of the plate were large discs of green apple topped with rounds of fresh goat cheese. I give Ethos credit for remembering not to put in the fennel and put the dressing on the side, but I'm a bit puzzled as to why they don't list all the ingredients on the menu. Although there is a possibility that all the extra veggies were just there on my salad because I didn't go with the fennel... but I suspect not. Either way, I dug in.

The salad was an ample plate of food, and it was good. The vegetables were crisp and fresh; even the roasted red peppers were good (and didn't give me indigestion afterwards, hooray!). The goat cheese was creamy and mild, an interesting flavor I'm not used to in my typical Coach-Farms consumption, and nicely complemented by the tart green apple base. The only negatives to the salad were the bits of green pepper (I picked those out) and the lack of abundant olives. The dressing was also somewhat lackluster; I abandoned it after a few forkfuls, but there was enough other flavor going on that I didn't really need dressing anyway.

Close-up of the goat cheese and apple rounds

My brother got the Ethos Arni, a dish of braised lamb in tomato sauce with potatoes, all baked in a clay pot. The waiter brought over the cooking vessel itself and then scooped out the meat and potatoes onto the plate-- a nice bit of tableside theater. The dish looked savory and warm; my brother gobbled it down with expressions of delight, pronouncing it like a better version of pot roast. Our friend ordered the Moussaka, a lasagna-like brick of ground meat, eggplant, potatoes, and bechamel, topped with some melted cheese, all accompanied by green beans in a tomato sauce. I snagged a small taste of the bechamel, studiously avoiding the ground meat, and a green bean, which was surprisingly flavorful. Most of my experience with green beans comes from steamed canned beans from the dining hall in college, so needless to say a good green bean was nothing short of a revelation.

Moussaka in the background, with beans on the side

All three of us polished off our dishes. As we finished the bottle of wine, we debated the dessert situation. Word on the street was Ethos doesn't have a dessert menu, but they bring you a free custard pastry at the end of the meal (these rumors came from Menupages, where I have researched Ethos... and basically all the other restaurants in Manhattan... many a time). Well, Ethos doesn't have a dessert menu, that part is true, but they also don't bring you anything at the end of the meal. What they do do is come up and say, "Can I get you anything else?" This becomes a bit awkward, because what are you going to say-- sure, I'd like another entree and possibly a few more appetizers just to cap off the meal? We were all pretty stuffed, so the lack of dessert didn't quite matter in the material sense, but it's certainly against the dining norm.

As is my usual protocol, before I deliver the final verdict, a word on the bathrooms: Ethos has two stand-alone bathrooms next to the entrance to the kitchen. Per my brother's advice, if you have to go while you're there, use the one on your left (the bigger one). The one on the right has a weird slanted mirror on the ceiling, which bugged my brother out to a perhaps irrational degree. But, you know, just a word to the wise...

So, in the end, where do I stand on Ethos? Overall, a very good experience. The food was top-quality, and the chefs were amenable to alterations to my dish (always a good restaurant trait when I'm dining out...). The pita was the best I've ever had. The portions were generous, and the ambiance was fun. Both my dining companions nominated Ethos for the first-ever five Offset Spatula restaurant on Life with Food and Drink, but I must pull up a bit short. Amongst all these perks were the somewhat dysfunctional wine service (I'm not a wine snob, seriously, but the whole situation was just a bit awkward) and the lack of a dessert menu... and the accompanying lack of a free dessert offering to make up for the lack of a full menu. Also, while the prices were relatively reasonable for New York City overall, they're a bit higher than I'd like to pay for an everyday, casual dining destination.

So, as a result of all these factors, I grant Ethos four OSes. Definitely check it out if you're in the area and you're in the mood for some quality Greek food. I certainly wouldn't hesitate to go back.

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