Monday, December 29, 2008

Kellari Taverna: The flavor costs extra

The day after Christmas, my family continued a tradition of taking in dinner and a Broadway show during the holiday season. This year's feature was Young Frankenstein, and we preceded that with dinner at Kellari Taverna, a Greek restaurant a few blocks away from the theater.

Our group of five (parents, the bro, and my friend JR home from law school, the evening's special guest) was seated far into the large restaurant in a secluded corner. Our enormous table was rickety, sloshing drinks every time anybody leaned on it to stand up. But the restaurant itself is convivial, bright and classy and pleasantly upbeat. The bar area at the front would be an especially nice place to take in a drink and a few appetizers.

As JR, the bro, and I waited for the parents to join us, a runner brought over a basket of bread and a tray of complimentary mezes. On offer were olives (spectacular), roasted red pepper hummus (pretty good), and radishes (ick). I didn't try the bread, as I was trying (unsuccessfully...) not to fill up, but I will particularly commend the olives as among the best at any NYC restaurant. For what it's worth, Dad also liked the radishes.

Rare unsampled bread

A nice way to start a meal

Shortly after we placed our order, our round of appetizers made its way to the table. I had selected an order of pikilia, "housemade spreads" with pita bread, for the table. The spreads on offer were tzaziki, an eggplant spread, caviar mousse, and a feta spread flavored with what tasted like anchovies. I had had my eye on the eggplant spread, which was disappointing-- smoky, a bit slimy, rather bland, and the unappealing color of an elderly bowl of guacamole. The tzaziki was pretty standard; the caviar mousse made the bro actively recoil; and the feta spread was tasty but tainted with anchovies (at least from my perspective). I tried a tiny piece of pita for the heck of it, and it was definitely above par. But all in all I would not order the pikilia again.

Clockwise from bottom right: Eggplant, feta, tzaziki, caviar mousse

Solid fresh pita

For other apps, JR had chosen the "lightly pan fried" calamari. It was certainly fried well-- light and not greasy-- but JR reported that the squid itself was rubbery.

A good fry job can't entirely mask bad fish

Mom and Dad both had the Prasini salad. It was described on the menu as "hearts of romaine with scallions, dill, and a mild feta dressing." The appearance of the salad sparked a lively discussion on iceberg vs. romaine lettuce (this was clearly iceberg, for the record). But both parents liked the salad dressing.

Only the tip of the iceberg. Har har.

The bro had selected the spanakopita. Of all the appetizers (and probably all the dishes we ordered overall), this was the best. The phyllo was crisp and golden-brown, the filling was very tasty with large chunks of feta cheese, and the portion size was really generous. If I were to redo my own order, I probably would have gone with an order of spanakopita and nothing else.

The dinner's winner

Appetizers down, we were off to the entree course. Both JR and the bro had gone with the lamb chops (Paidakia), served with olive oil & oregano roasted potatoes. Once again, the portion here was huge, but both consumers said the lamb was nothing special. I'll also add that the potatoes looked like canned pears. Weird.

Lamb & pears?

Upon our waiter's definitive recommendation, my mom had gone for the char, which came atop a pile of horta (more on that later). This was a thick steak of "salmon's cousin," as the waiter described it, topped with a drizzle of some kind of sauce. Mom, fish lover that she is, definitely enjoyed this.

Fish, straight up

Dad had gone with an order of meatballs, an appetizer, which came with gravy and what looked like mashed potatoes in the middle. As he said, "If I made meatballs at home, they'd be like this." That's restaurant-goer-speak for "meh."

Just like home

For my own entree, I had chosen to combine two vegetable side dishes, an order of asparagus and an order of horta, or steamed wild mountain greens. The asparagus was very good, "lightly grilled" as promised and quite tasty. The horta, however, was a different story. As served, it was completely, utterly unseasoned, so the only flavor that came through was the bitter, slightly funky taste of the greens themselves. Now, I generally like greens of all kinds, but these were just gross. And I kept on trying to add flavor-- first with a generous squeeze of lemon, then with a few shakes of salt-- but you know when you keep trying to mask bad flavors with other flavors and ultimately end up with an even grosser concoction that still tastes insistently of the flavor you were trying to cover up? Yeah. That's what happened here. I gamely still ate about half of this deceptively large dish, because sometimes I'm just really stupid like that, and not surprisingly felt sick afterwards.

Nice thin spears, the way I like 'em

Just a bad idea

And here, dear readers, is where we transition from "eating a hearty dinner" to "forcing it." It was dessert time, and even though my stomach was already too full of a gross combination of various dishes, I had to partake (see also: being "really stupid like that"). My own selection was the baklava, which came garnished with two painfully underripe strawberry halves and swimming in a honey sauce. I do really like baklava, and this was tasty, but in my opinion part of the appeal of baklava is the light, flaky layers... which were completely done away with by this dish's dense, cylindrical shape. Nonetheless, the nutty filling packed in the middle combined with the honey sauce was very good. Cue food

Would definitely be better in a flaky square

The bro had gone for the Galaktoboureko, also known as vanilla bean semolina custard with a phyllo crust and apple syrup. This dessert was very pretty, but my tiny taste (force force force) of the filling revealed a pronounced semolina taste, sort of like eating Cream of Wheat in cake form. It would probably have tasted better if I hadn't been bordering on nauseated at that point.

Definitely visually appealing

Mom and JR had each selected Sokolata, a chocolate souffle cake with halva mousse. The halva mousse caused a bit of a skirmish between the waiter and my mom (the waiter won), and when it arrived it was a bit of an odd texture-- sort of like a more solid semifreddo, or like mousse that someone had inadvertently put in the freezer for a bit. The chocolate cake itself was yummy and chocolatey, as all chocolate cake should be.

Like a halva mousse muffin

And with that we paid our bills, loosened our belts, and waddled stuffed-to-the-gills to the Hilton Theater to watch Young Frankenstein. I'm torn on my ultimate evaluation of Kellari Taverna-- I've been there once before, and I continue to like it, perhaps because the dining room itself is so fun and welcoming. But when you get down to it, the food really just isn't that great, and it's rather expensive, although the portion sizes are generous. The service can be hit-or-miss; this time we hit with a waiter who will go down in history as one of the most confident people I've ever met (someone with that much confidence about ANYTHING should really just not be a waiter). I think on balance Kellari is a three-Offset-Spatula place. If you order carefully, you can have a really good meal, but if you don't you'll end up with a horta-induced stomachache.

Kellari Taverna
19 W. 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Aves


Gar said...

That's disappointing. I went to Kellari's Parea Greek Bistro (maybe its sister restaurant??) and I ordered the horta. I love greens, but although I did ask for no seasoning, I think the greens are over steamed. I've had horta in Astoria and it was much better. I love bitter greens, but not when it's overcooked.

Janine said...


I was very disappointed as well. I love greens, but these ones were very off in both taste and texture. Next time I'll stick with the spanakopita!


Gar said...

if you like Greek food, you should head to Astoria when you get a chance.