Like a Trip to Greece (And Almost as Costly)

There seems to be something of a Greek revival going on in midtown. I am referring not to architecture, but food. Hot on the heels of Molyvos, a rustic taverna that opened down the block a few months ago, comes Milos, all white, marble and high-tech, with ceilings 26 feet high.

“Very Beverly Hills,” remarked my companion as we walked in through the glass doors past the enormous Grecian urn at the entrance. (If this were a theme restaurant, surely a mechanized Zeus would jump out.) Over by the picture windows stood another urn of equally imposing stature, around which rough-hewn stones and columns were piled up like menhirs in an Astérix cartoon.

We walked a few steps up into the inner dinner room, which is separated from the front by white muslin curtains and softly lit by oversized bulbs in tin shades that hang from the high ceiling. In the back, like a display in Tiffany’s, was a marble counter, laden with fish. Pompano and sole (“all profile,” as Jean Cocteau once remarked), silver sardines, baby squid, giant striped bass, crimson-tinged snapper and red mullet, and fish I’d never seen before, sparkled on their bed of ice. Expensively dressed men and women walked around the fish, followed by solicitous waiters who offered advice like sales attendants helping customers to pick out a nice ring. I craved the sea urchin, whose bristly shell had been cut in half to reveal a sample of golden roe so plump that it was all I could do not to reach out and pop it in my mouth with my fingers. We returned to our seats and ordered a glass of Greek wine.

Judging by the crowds, the owner of Milos, Costas Spiliadis, is on to a very clever thing. Apparently he has figured out what people really want. Forget about bits of meat swimming in mysterious sauces (mystery being a desirable quality in almost anything but food). People want fresh, simple, nonfattening, instantly recognizable food, and they’ll happily pay through the nose for it. Just as it is in Mr. Spiliadis’ highly successful restaurant in Montreal, the fish here is flown in daily from all over the world. You pick it out and it’s grilled to order. Vegetables are extra. There are also salads, and for those who don’t want fish, there are lamb and veal chops. That’s about the size of it.

Our waiter brought a bowl of dark green olive oil to the table, along with some olives and a small pot of oregano. He proceeded to snip the leaves from the plant into the oil as if to say, what could be fresher than that?

“Is this restaurant named after the Greek island of Melos?” asked my friend. The waiter nodded. “Tourists don’t go there because the island has noisy machines on it,’ he said. “So it’s unspoilt.” He went off to get some bread. “The Athenians massacred the citizens of Melos after the island defected to Sparta,” said my friend, who apparently had read his Thucydides. “It was like My Lai. They killed everyone on the entire island. Not one person, man, woman or child, was left.”

Feeling somewhat chastened by this revelation, I tried to turn my attention elsewhere: to the menu. My friend had never tried sea urchin before, and he looked doubtful. They were $2.50 a piece, so we settled for one each. When they arrived, they were pathetically scrawny in comparison to the choice morsel we had seen on display. But they were still delicious.

“A seafood version of white truffles,” said my friend. And like white truffles, there’s never enough of them.

Milos serves wonderful light, meaty crabcakes that taste just made, not as though they have been sitting in bread crumbs in the fridge for a day. The grilled octopus salad, one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, is also extraordinary, tossed in a vinaigrette with onions, capers and red and yellow peppers. The Milos special, paper-thin slivers of fried zucchini and eggplant served hot with fried saganaki cheese, is as hard to stop eating as potato chips. We were too late for fresh anchovies (they were already sold out), but there were sardines from Portugal, grilled and sprinkled with olive oil and oregano, so fresh you could have been eating them right on the beach.

Red mullet, also known as rouget, are fried at Milos when they are small and grilled when larger. These bony Mediterranean fish are hard to come by in the United States, and I never miss a chance to have them on the rare occasions when I see them in the market. They were wonderfully sweet and delicate. Also good were the royal dorado, a white Mediterranean fish, and sargos, a white Greek fish. The only disappointment was the tuna, rather bland in its sesame crust and served with a piece of overcooked sweet corn. But perhaps I’ve been having too much tuna lately; it seems to be on every menu in town.

As in a steakhouse, vegetables are served separately. The side salads of tomatoes, greens or arugula are fresh and generous. I also liked the creamy fava, stewed yellow split peas from the island of Santorini with olive oil, lemon and shallots. Steamed vegetables were a bit of an effort, though, because the broccoli was rather tough.

When we asked about dessert (after such a healthy dinner of grilled fish and steamed vegetables, we felt we deserved it), our waiter, who was very friendly, seemed a bit reluctant. “There is no menu,” he said. “But we have fresh fruit with homemade yogurt and wild honey.”

“Do you have any Greek desserts?”

“Baklava and galatoboureko.”

“We’ll have the baklava and the … er … the other thing.”

The two pastries arrived, one filled with custard, and they were pleasant, not too sweet under their honey syrup in a light, crisp filo dough.

The price for simplicity is high. But this restaurant is the next best thing to a meal on a Mediterranean beach.

Estiatorio Milos **

125 West 55th Street, 245-7400

Dress: Chic

Noise level: Can be quite loud

Wine List: Interesting and not overpriced

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Fish main courses sold at $20 to $32 a pound; meat $28, lunch prix fixe $29.50

Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to

3 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5:30 P.M. to midnight

* good

** very good

*** excellent

**** outstanding

no star poor