250 Park Avenue South
(at 20th Street)
Noise Level: Reasonable or high, depending upon where you sit
Wine List: Mostly Italian and Greek, 14 wines by the glass, wide range of anisettes
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Main courses, $23 to $34; side dishes, $6
Dinner: Sunday and Monday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, to midnight; Friday and Saturday, to 12:30 a.m.;
“Barbounia” is a much prettier name for a small fish than “red mullet.” It’s also the name of the latest big restaurant to open on Park Avenue South. Barbounia arrives hot on the heels of Barça 18 two blocks down and serves “modern Greek cuisine with Mediterranean influences.” Like Barça 18 (where the food is Spanish), Barbounia is a scene.
You enter through a heavy, aged wood door built for basketball players, flanked by steel and glass. Inside, you would never recognize the premises that once housed Patria. The vast space, two stories high, is dominated by an immense chandelier made of white feathers, like a giant, spiky Swan Lake tutu, hanging from a ceiling of rustic wooden planks. To the right, as befits this trendy location, there’s a long, busy bar and a lounge. Behind the white marble bar, floor-to-ceiling green and orange glass shelves hold an alluring display of bottles visible from the street.
The bar scene doesn’t intrude on the room, though, which is punctuated by lofty archways and giant pillars and hung with swatches of gauzy white material that absorb noise. The oval unisex bathroom is like a Turkish bath, entirely covered with cobalt blue tile, and has Greek urns as sink basins.
Depending upon where you sit, the dining room is pleasant or rather noisy. One night, we were seated under the arches towards the open kitchen in the back, and it was like being in one of those echoing corners of a vaulted chamber; the high-pitched laughter of women at a table half the room away was louder than the people next to us.
Barbounia is owned by Danielle Billera and Matthew Johnson of SushiSamba and Simon Oren of Nice Matin. Just two weeks before they were due to open in November, the chef, Matthew Akarino, and his staff walked out. He was quickly replaced by Michael Cressotti, formerly corporate chef for SushiSamba, and who was previously chef de cuisine at the Red Cat and opening sous chef at Patria.
The wine list concentrates largely on the Mediterranean, with over two dozen Greek varieties, around 40 Italian and a smattering of French and domestic vintages. There are two wines under a section nonchalantly entitled “other Mediterranean reds.” One is from the Golan Heights in Israel, the other from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
I tried to persuade my companion, who was leafing through the Italian wines, that we should be adventurous and throw ourselves upon the mercy of the sommelier to direct us to a good Greek wine. “After all, wine began in Greece,” I said.
His faced darkened. “Yes, and it ended there.”
But with the help of the sommelier, we finally settled on an Avanti Syrah from Macedonia. It was wonderful and, at $50, a bargain.
“Modern Greek cuisine” means your red mullet doesn’t arrive hot off the grill garnished only with a piece of lemon; it comes instead with a red-wine shallot reduction. And sardines, “fire-roasted,” are lightly coated with mustard oil and paired with a salad of Granny Smith apples and fennel. Charred octopus gets a kalamata tapenade and is laced with pieces of crystallized lemon. All are delicious. So is the bone marrow, thoroughly delightful and bad for you, unctuous as butter. It came with thick slices of toasted brioche and half a roasted garlic clove that could have used another 20 minutes in the oven. The rich, dark sauce is a “Xinomavro reduction,” made from a dry red wine from Northern Greece. The traditional Greek spreads are also very good and include baba ghanoush, hummus, taramasalata, and apricot truffle yogurt served with the house flat bread.
Service is efficient and friendly, but twice during the evening I was asked, “Are you still working on that?” It made me think of the Roz Chast cartoon: “No. In fact, I’m completely exhausted. Maybe if you wrap it up, I can finish working on it at home?”
Fish and meat from the grill are served unadorned, steakhouse-style. Dorade, pompano and branzino are grilled with olive oil, herbs and lemon. First-rate lamb chops cost $31, the fine rib eye, $32; with side dishes an extra $6, the bill adds up. The sides include a creamy mascarpone polenta, oven-roasted sunchokes and horta, “Greek greens” that turned out to be red Swiss chard.
Duck risotto was nicely cooked but needed salt. So did the snapper with lentils, but it was also good, with artichokes, olives and red peppers. I also liked the rabbit done two ways, the loin draped with Serrano ham, the slow-cooked leg wrapped in phyllo.
Desserts include “Aphrodite,” a sublime chocolate passion-fruit tart, and apple “cigars” made with phyllo pastry. A weight-conscious friend ordered the yogurt panna cotta rather listlessly. Served with elderflower syrup, red grapes and mint, it was a revelation. And “Turkish Delight,” rather than being the candy I always loathed as a child when it was doled out at Christmas time, is a Turkish coffee custard and pistachio cake with warm, spiced apricots. At the end of dinner, tiny triangles of baklava are served as petits fours.
Barbounia can be a trifle hectic, but its food is inventive and executed with flair. And it’s a good thing the restaurant isn’t named the Red Mullet. The scene, of course, would be entirely differen
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