I'd always visited Astoria in warm weather in order to eat in the restaurant's big, beautiful back yard. Now, I figured, it was time to go inside.
And inside turned out to be delightful. A tiny space -- maybe 10 tables clustered together in a small storefront with warm ambience. Comfortably informal, as well.
We began the meal with Saganaki Opa ($7). It's fun because it's spectacular. A half-inch slab of cheese was fried and flavored in the kitchen, then put on a heatproof platter. And here is what is supposed to happen next: The server is supposed to pour brandy over the cheese at tableside and set it aflame.
Things happen. In our case, she tried to set the thing on fire, but her lighter failed and the whole thing fizzled.
Back to the kitchen (which was about about two feet away, actually) for another serving. Different lighter, different (I hope) cheese. Result: a most satisfactory conflagration. We spread the cheese on pita bread.
Is it OK to say the server kept her cool?
On to the next course, in my case, Chicken Lemon Soup, the great classic. This was disappointing because it wasn't warm enough, first of all. The soup was thick with pasta and pleasantly lemony, but the chicken flavor was very slight. The Companion's Greek Salad was fine.
Both entrees were terrific and both were evening specials. It's a tossup as to which one was better. The main course Dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves) were filled with ground sirloin -- the first time I've ever eaten them this way, and I loved the tangy flavor and chewy texture. It was a full-flavored dish. The grape leaves were accompanied by Greek potatoes, very lemony. To tell the truth, almost too lemony, as far as I'm concerned.
The Lamb Shank was a total winner. Cooked long and slowly so that it had a pure velvet texture. This was a good-sized shank, and I can't think of better cold-weather food.
The dessert selection, predictably, includes baklava plus a baklava variation, Raspberry Baklava to be precise. Since we'd never tasted it, we had to give it a try. Probably not a great idea, a definite case of gilding the lily. Too sweet and not flaky enough, sad to say.
If you are seeking other Greek favorites, you won't have a problem in this restaurant. You can get an Open Chicken Souvlaki ($7), a Gyro Dinner ($12) and Pastitsio, the thick pasta combined with wine seasoned ground sirloin and topped with bechamel sauce (with soup or salad, it runs $15).
But you can, if you wish, go further afield. Cajun Grilled Shrimp -- now there's a leap for you -- runs $12, Pork Tenderloin topped with sauteed mushrooms $15. And note the Grilled Salmon Dinner topped with creamy dill sauce for $15. The best of two worlds.
WHERE: 423 Elmwood Ave. (884-4711). An intimate restaurant with Greek and American specialties. Beer and wine only. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Lamb Shanks (an evening special)
NEEDS WORK: Chicken Lemon Soup
PRICE RANGE: Dinners from $14 include soup or salad, vegetable and potato.
SERVICE: Very good
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
HOURS: Lunch, Monday through Friday. Dinner, until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
HEALTHY CHOICES: Broiled Fish; Cajun Chicken Breast
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
PARKING: In the lot
KID APPEAL: Older children will enjoy.