Dining out with Moira Hodgson

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By Way of Tribeca

I felt I was onstage in the final act of the Met’s current production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens , where Aeneas sets off for Italy. Giant white sails billowed overhead; columns wrapped like masts with canvas and ropes rose before the horizon, which was a clear, shimmering blue. But instead of climbing on a funeral pyre like the abandoned Dido, I was sitting at a table drinking a glass of Greek wine.

Thalassa (which means “sea” in Greek) is a stunning new restaurant that has moved into a warehouse in Tribeca, across the street from Nobu and a few doors down from the Socrates coffee shop. It’s on two floors, with exposed brick walls, soaring 18-foot ceilings, backlit onyx columns and giant Grecian urns.

Shortly after we gave the waiter our order, a truck drew up outside, emblazonedwiththe words “Quality Foods from Greece.”

“Our dinner has arrived!” one of my friends joked.

“The last truck to arrive before war begins,” said another gloomily.

The dread in the pit of my stomach hadn’t subsided since it set in during the horribly relevant, five-hour opera I had seen a week or so earlier. But the food at Thalassa does much to take one’s mind off the current mess of the world, for an hour or two at least.

Five years ago, when New York was a happier and more innocent place, a Greek fish restaurant called Milos opened in midtown. Instead of the usual retsina and moussaka, there were sparkling displays of fish on ice (which was sold by the pound) and an intriguing list of Greek wines that most of us had never heard of. Customers were given a walk-through along the rows of fish by solicitous waiters offering advice, like Tiffany salesmen helping you pick out a nice engagement ring. It was a clever formula (fresh, recognizable, nonfattening food), and Milos begat similar restaurants uptown, such as Avra and Trata. Thalassa’s chef, Gregory Zapantis (who, incidentally, comes from Kefallinía, the largest of the Ionian islands off the southwestern coast of Greece), was a chef de cuisine at Milos, and later went on to become chef at the other two restaurants. Thalassa’s general manager, Mina Newman, was formerly the executive chef of Layla and Dylan Prime.

The restaurant is overrun with affable, often confused young waiters in pale-blue silk ties (murder if any of that luscious house olive oil, made from “hand-picked” Kalamata olives, gets dripped on those ties). You get a bowl of the olive oil with a basket of grilled country bread and house-cured olives when you sit down, and you will probably find yourself asking for a refill. You can also, upon request, get some sheep’s butter; it has an interesting cheesy taste, and I recommend it.

The space occupied by Thalassa was previously a warehouse for the Makris family’s importing business. There they stored Greek olives, cheese, olive oils and other foods before the goods were distributed to Manhattan’s restaurants and retail stores. When the business moved to New Jersey, mother Julia Makris turned the warehouse into a restaurant with the help of architect Jean-Pierre Heim. A white marble bar, lit from behind in cobalt blue, extends from the front door down to a mountain of crushed ice with fish peeking out. A row of blue-labeled olive-oil bottles and piles of red and yellow tomatoes sit above the fish display. From time to time, flames leap up like Dido’s pyre from the nearby gleaming, open kitchen. A wide staircase leads down to a second dining room that’s more like a Greek taverna, with cheeses aging in a separate alcove that also serves as a wine cellar. The bar here is quite something, made with backlit onyx panels that extend to the second floor like a futuristic altar, ready for the burnt offering.

It was at Milos that I realized there was more to Greek wine than the brutal retsinas of my youth. But getting a good one at Thalassa, if you’re not well-versed in the subject, is hit or miss. The waiters are all charming, many from Greece or Cyprus (one a dead ringer for Praxiteles, with a head of tight, godlike curls), but some are much better informed than others. Refosco Domaine Mercouri is a good red for $40, and in whites I liked the Lazardi Magic Mountain sauvignon blanc ($48) and the Assyrtiko from Santorini ($37), a wine that gets its flinty taste from volcanic soil. (“The island’s known as the Black Pearl of the Aegean,” said one of my friends. “Its black beaches are so hot you burn the soles of your feet.”)

Dinner was off to a terrific start with grilled langoustines and giant head-on shrimp, perfectly cooked. The dolmas were outstanding, made with veal instead of the traditional lamb, served with avgolemono sauce. Also good were the chunks of charred octopus tossed in a red wine vinaigrette with capers, and bacalao fried in strips laid over a creamy almond and garlic mousse on a bed of paper-thin sliced beets. But raw zucchini blossoms stuffed with jumbo crabmeat on arugula didn’t have much taste. The plain Greek salad, on the other hand, was just what it should be: ripe juicy tomatoes, cucumber and sharp, aged feta cheese. I saw that salad going to another table and immediately wanted one, too. It’s the kind of simple food I love.

But here’s where the food at Thalassa gets into trouble: Fresh ingredients simply prepared leave the cook nowhere to hide. What better way to have a piece of fish than grilled and seasoned only with fresh herbs, lemon and capers? But if it’s overcooked, it may as well have been fished out dead from the water. With the exception of lethrini, a lean fish with a delicate flavor known as “the Greek Pride” (which, for two, will set you back $70), and the shellfish I’d had as a first course, all the seafood I tasted was overcooked. Red mullet would have been great with a minute less on the grill. Dorade, baked in a clay vessel with tomatoes, onions, thyme and white wine, was almost in shreds. Halibut, with a fricassee of artichokes and fava beans, was mushy. And a seafood risotto made with scallops, shrimp and mussels was bland and dry.

There are also some meat dishes on the menu, including a rib eye, a lamb shank and a venison chop. The latter was fine, but the lemon potatoes roasted with oregano that came with it were extraordinary. You can get them on the side with grilled fish, too-don’t miss them. Broccoli rabe with feta and lemon was also good, as were the peas Athenian, deliberately well cooked so they’re like French canned petits pois.

For dessert, the toasted almond baklava with rose-petal sorbet and the galaktobouriko-lemoncustard wrapped in phyllo with pergamont sorbet-were both first-rate. You can also get a plate of Greek artisanal cheeses with some excellent feta and fresh mint.

If they got the fish-cooking under control, Thalassa would merit two stars. In the meantime, I suggest asking for it medium-rare. And when you’re having dinner here surrounded by Greek things, try not to think about the Trojan War.

Dining out with Moira Hodgson