By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
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There's no Mediterranean ocean outside, but there is water gurgling upward from the Normandy fountain across the street. Ouzo's is located at the corner of 71st Street and Rue Vendome, housed in a property that's been problematic for restaurateurs in the past. Previously this space was Café Tetuan, and before that it was a Latin place, a fusion-Mediterranean eatery, a Hungarian restaurant -- and that's just in the past six months! Seriously, spots like this are considered unlucky, even jinxed, but luck, as has been said, is the residue of design. Ouzo's offers a popular cuisine unavailable anywhere else nearby, at extremely affordable prices, in an upbeat, enjoyable environment -- all qualities that prior designs decidedly lacked.
As in a real taverna, Ouzo's standard Greek menu focuses on freshness, not creativity. We started up strongly with a string of successful appetizers. Spanakopita, the famous Greek spinach and feta pie, came as four flaky, phyllo-wrapped triangles (this will be your only chance to sample a vegetable other than eggplant, zucchini, or squash). Saganaki, another signature Greek dish, features a baked, melted disc of somewhat salty kasseri cheese that gets flambéed tableside with cognac and then doused with lemon juice. The cheese retained the cutting citric tartness more than any flamed-out cognac taste, and was, judging by the rapidity of its disappearance, a big hit at our table.
Tzatziki, taramasalata, hummus, and melitzanosalata (garlicky roast eggplant) dips are always crowd-pleasers, and Ouzo's mixed dip platter brings them all together, along with cheeses, Kalamata olives, stuffed grape leaves, and pita triangles. The spreads were all fresh and flavorful, but no appetizer better showcased the sumptuous simplicity of Greek cooking than tender morsels of chargrilled octopus splashed with lemon juice and garlic.
A main course of whole baked snapper was likewise given a clean Mediterranean treatment, adorned only with lemon juice, olive oil, and herbs, but the fish was pinkly underdone. After a brief return to the kitchen it came back in more agreeable fashion. Ample and juicy slices of roasted New Zealand leg of lamb (arni psito) were bathed in a clumsy lamb sauce that masked any of the touted "traditional spices."
Moussaka and souvlaki are generally the big guns of Greek menus. The latter gets prepared beautifully here, big meaty cubes of tenderloin-tender lamb skewered with squares of onion and green pepper. Moussaka was disappointing, mostly due to an inadvertent lack of potatoes; this made the meal a mere layering of eggplant, chopped beef, and Béchamel sauce with some moistening red sauce on top. The portion size was minuscule, a three-inch-by-three-inch low-rise square. A similarly stingy helping of "Greek fries" on the side (which bore remarkable resemblance to French fries) was hand-cut and crisply cooked. It was my small, skinny Greek dinner, but then again, the dish is only $10.50, which is what you'd pay for an appetizer at most restaurants on the Beach.
In fact Ouzo's pricing is more than fair -- grilled baby lamb chops and that whole baked snapper are the two most expensive entrées, and they're only $16. A particularly fetching deal is the $15 mixed grill plate, with chicken breast, baby lamb chop, meatballs, sausage, and souvlaki. Monday and Tuesday nights all-you-can-eat for $12.50 is a downright steal, and probably won't last once Ouzo's begins drawing regular crowds on those evenings.
Moussaka is also offered vegetarian, meaning the ground beef is taken out. In its place were the thick slices of stewed potatoes that should have come with the meaty version. A vegetarian yemista comprised a tomato and green pepper, each baked with a parslied rice filling. Dull.
Service is kindhearted and generally competent, though there were a few snafus along the way. On one occasion main courses arrived before appetizer plates were cleared; another time an obviously postdinner crumbed-up table (I'm not proud to say mostly around my setting) was left unswept for dessert. Admittedly this sort of service happens all the time in the casual confines of a real Greek taverna, but there are limits to how far authenticity should be taken.
A trio of phyllo variations head the dessert list: the walnut, almond, and syrup-filled kataifi; the walnut, almond, and syrup-filled baklava; and galatobureko, wherein the thin, crispy pastry gets parceled into a petite packet protecting a creamy white custard interior. Karithopita was everyone's favorite, a rich, homemade walnut cake prepared by the owners' mom. Raisinless but otherwise regulation rice pudding is also made on site, and will undoubtedly bring great satisfaction to puddingheads.