An Elegant Greek Joint-But, Please, No Retsina!

When I ran into some friends at a party recently and invited them to join me for dinner, they accepted with alacrity. We were in midtown, so I suppose they thought we’d just stroll over to some fancy French restaurant off Fifth Avenue. When I told them that instead we were going for Greek food, they were taken aback. Indeed, in their Paul Stuart jackets and bow ties, they would have quite looked out of place in the setting they expected: dusty Acropolis sunsets on the wall, Formica tabletops and spinning hulks of gray souvlaki, with a Zorba soundtrack. I could see their hopes of a nice bottle of burgundy vanish, too, in the wake of a sturdy house retsina with a bouquet like the pine air-freshener that dangled in the back of our taxicab.

They were somewhat mollified when we walked into a large, softly lit and inviting dining room designed by Adam Tihany on the ground floor of a town house on the Upper East Side. The restaurant is on two levels, separated by round white pillars and wrought-iron railings, its tables set with crisp linen cloths and placed comfortably far apart. The ceilings are hung not with neon strips but with elegantly curved wrought-iron chandeliers topped with a half-dozen lights under neat white boutique lampshades.

“Artos” means “bread” in Greek, and the room is dominated by a huge, round wood-burning brick oven covered with brightly painted tiles, in front of which were piled freshly baked loaves and rolls. When we sat down, the waiter placed a basket of this bread on the table and handed us the wine list.

“How about a nice bottle of retsina?” I asked jokingly.

“No!” my friend turned to the waiter. “We want a wine that’s great, but worth more than the price you are charging for it.”

“And it must be Greek,” I added. The waiter looked bemused. (I had been to Artos once before with my husband and son, and our doe-eyed waiter that night, who was from Nicosia, had suggested a wine called Dafnis. “The hunter!” my son had exclaimed. “No, the hunter was Artemis.” “She was my favorite!”) The Dafnis had been very good, but I wanted to try something new. He suggested Amethystos, which was only $28.

As we waited for the wine to arrive, my friend told us about the time he had ordered a glass of red wine in a restaurant in Cody, Wyo. “It wasn’t very good. In fact it was awful, so after drinking some of it, I called over the waitress. ‘Do you have any other red wine?’ I asked. ‘I’ll go and see,’ she replied. A few minutes later, she returned. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘but that was the last glass of wine we have.'”

At that point, the wine came; to my relief, it was smooth and pleasant. The bread was exceptional: an assortment of crusty rolls and a whole loaf stuffed with sautéed onions that had been baked inside it. “The premise here is light, healthy food,” I said as we looked at the menu.

“Isn’t the term ‘healthy Greek food’ an oxymoron?” My friend was obviously still thinking of those dives we used to love near Hell’s Kitchen, with their greasy steam-table stews and leather-topped moussaka, day-glo pink taramasalata and stuffed vine leaves that seemed to have been created from spontaneous combustion in the can.

“They eat a lot of fish in Greece. Not to mention Greek salad.”

“Nothing like fresh fish.” My friend grew up in a Portuguese fishing town in Massachusetts. “Five days a week, we ate fish, one day chicken. If you went down to the dock, the fishermen would throw a 10-pound haddock at you for nothing. If you were lazy and stayed home, there would be a kid at your door selling it to you for 20 cents. I thought that was the way the world worked. The poorest person in the world wouldn’t eat a fish that had not been caught the same day. After I left, I went into fresh-fish exile.” He decided to come out of fresh-fish exile to try Artos’ fish soup, which was made with mussels, clams, shrimp and grouper, and scented with saffron, basil and fennel. It was fresh, all right, but the broth tasted rather thin. On my previous visit, I had tried the cold mezedes (a platter that included cucumber in a garlicky yogurt dressing, creamy taramasalata, a subtle eggplant salad, good stuffed vine leaves-fresh, not canned-and, oddly, smoked salmon), so I opted this time for the hot selection. Two kinds of fritters made with shredded zucchini and cheese were delicious, as were the meat patties and eggplant stuffed with feta cheese. But the pièce de résistance was the grilled octopus. In Greece, they dry octopus in the sun, grill the tentacles over a fire and serve them with ouzo. That version can’t be much better than the octopus at Artos, which was tender and lightly charred, sprinkled with olive oil, wine vinegar and oregano. (If you ever get an urge to take a close look at a live octopus, go to the Coney Island Aquarium, where one of the more sinister exhibits is a large female octopus in a tank, waving her enormous tentacles and staring with tiny baleful eyes at children pressing their noses to the glass.)

Whole fish-striped bass or red snapper-is charbroiled at Artos, and seasoned with olive oil, rosemary and garlic. Our snapper was a little overcooked, as were the grilled sea scallops with basil and tomatoes, although they were very fresh.

Traditional “village” chicken, as it is called on the menu, meaning half a grilled bird with olive oil, lemon and oregano, was a bit on the dry side, too, although the roast potatoes were first-rate. I liked the lamb dishes best. The moussaka, which was made with layers of fresh tomato, potato and eggplant with chopped lamb; the delicate baby lamb stew with orzo; and the pink baby lamb chops with thyme and fried potatoes were all very good. Offered for dessert were a bland tartufo, a rather soggy baklava and one of the best crèmes caramel I have ever had. We didn’t exactly end the evening at Artos by breaking the plates. But then we hadn’t drunk a drop of retsina, either, and I felt a lot better for it in the morning.

Artos * 1/2

307 East 53rd Street, 838-0007

Dress: Casual

Noise level: Fine

Wine list: Reasonable, with some good Greek wines

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses dinner $16 to $29

Lunch: Monday to Friday noon to (11)3 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 5 P.M. to 11 P.M.

* Good

** Very Good

*** Excellent

**** Outstanding

No Star-Poor An Elegant Greek Joint-But, Please, No Retsina!