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GREEK TO ME

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"Just like Greece," said my friend as we were led to our table at Agnanti Meze in Bay Ridge. He was stating the obvious. It was as steamy as August in Athens in the dining room; with only ceiling fans making a lazy whirl above us, we stayed hot most of the night.

Open since December, Agnanti Meze is a spin-off of the popular restaurant of the same name in Astoria, Queens. Spiros Sidorakis and his partner, Maria Lambrianidis, cloned the formula of their first venture: Offer more than spinach pie and souvlaki, and serve it in a room that channels a mom and pop taverna.

Agnanti Meze (Greek for "gazing from afar") is on the long side and painted pink, which lightens the feeling of the rectangular space. Windows open onto the street; the floors are tiled; and on a brick wall is a display of black-and-white photos of Athenians and shelves of taverna-style tchotchkes. The only missing details are waves breaking at the door.

Eleni Karabela is the chef. Her menu is heavy on meze, the small plates of hors d’oeuvres that make up many a Greek and Turkish meal. There are hot and cold appetizers, Greek cheeses and a section called "Tastes of Constantin­ople," with hot and cold plates. Entrees are heavy on grilled fish, as well as braised meat dishes.

Highlights of my meal included the opening basket of warm, chewy, olive oil-smeared bread, and the finale, when a plate of tangy sheep’s milk yogurt was topped with grapes stewed in sugar syrup and served with "halvah politiko," a warm spoon-bread made with semolina soaked in an orange syrup. Both are offered gratis to diners.

The "kalitsounia," a mix of sauteed shitake, portobello and button mushrooms enclosed in a crisp half-moons of pastry, makes a fine beginning to the meal. They’re served with feta cheese blended with jalapeno peppers into a creamy dip that’s pungent but doesn’t overpower the filling. Little, quickly fried croquets of zucchini mixed with feta, dill and mint, called "kolokythok­eftedes," were creamy and clean tasting. They called for a touch of something acidic, so a few slices of lemon should be served with the dish.

I ordered the "ntakos" because a table of 25 rowdy diners was digging into several dishes of the appetizer, only to find it unbearably dull. The Greek version of "panzenella," the Italian bread salad, is served in a tall mound of dried dark bread, tomatoes, feta cheese and olives. To moisten the bread, the leaning tower of wheat is drenched with too much vinaigrette, leaving it soggy. The dressing was undersalted and the tomatoes employed were under-ripe.

I wasn’t wowed by the "bourek" either. While the pastry was crisp and nicely scented with cinnamon, the ground chicken filling was under-seasoned.

We fared better with the "shrimp giouvetsi," in which those tender, large crustaceans were baked in an oval dish with tomatoes and feta. The shrimp were fresh and sweet, and the cheese added tang to the sweet, pulpy tomatoes.

Two of the entrees we tried - a perfectly grilled striped bass and a rustic lamb stew - were outstanding. The other, a Greek version of stuffed cabbage called "lahanodolm­athes," was undeniably dreary.

Karabela understands that a fresh fish, especially one like striped bass with its subtle, sweet flesh, is best served simply. She drizzles a whole fish with olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano before crisping it on the grill. Its skin arrives herbaceous and crunchy while the flesh is moist and smoky. We swiped pieces of the fish through a ring of lemon-flavored olive oil on the plate until the entire serving was gone.

Equally good was the lamb stew. Chunks of the meat are slow-cooked in a rich tomato sauce until the meat sloughs off the bone. While the dish simmers, the tomatoes and chunks of zucchini absorb the deep meatiness of the lamb. It’s a heavy entree for a warm evening, but it’s exactly the dish for weary souls on a cold night.

I’d stay away from the "lahanodolm­athes," regardless of the weather. The cabbage is swapped for romaine lettuce, which isn’t terrible; the weakly seasoned ground beef and rice filling is. So, too, is an insipid lemony sauce, so thick you could stand a spoon in it.

All the entrees were served with tender stewed artichoke hearts and potatoes in a tasty, lemon-brightened sauce. However, peas and little squares of carrots mixed into the sauce gave the dish the look of diner fare.

It’s funny that with "small plate" restaurants being the rage right now, Greek food still flies low on diners’ radar. Agnanti Meze is relatively new and trying hard to please, but until the kitchen crew can deliver consistently good meze, it won’t be the go-to place for this cuisine.

 

Agnanti Meze Restaurant (7802 Fifth Ave. at 78th Street in Bay Ridge) accepts MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $10.50-$20.50. The restaurant serves lunch on the weekends from 1 pm to 4 pm; dinner is served daily. For reservations, call (718) 833-7033.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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