Sunday, January 16, 2011
Exo - Greek Greatness Knows No Boundaries
Exo - 15-16 149th Street, Whitestone NY 11357
Living in Astoria for many years has exposed me to some of the best Greek food I've sunk my teeth into. Until now. Even though the restaurant I'm about to tell you isn't in Astoria, I'm not at all surprised that its chef and owner, Constantine Kalandranis is an Astoria native.
It was fun to explore a new neighborhood while visiting Exo. Located in Whitestone, which is a a quaint, mostly residential area in Queens, I'd suggest driving over. If making the trip from Astoria, it's a short 15-20 minute drive and parking seemed to be a cinch.
Once inside, we immediately took in the cozy space. Situated on two levels, Exo's front-of-the-house space serves as a casual bar with a few local beers on tap that caught our eye. As you walk further into the restaurant, you'll notice an alcove opening that leads into the main dining room, with seating on the ground level but also one level up. Dan and I sat in the latter section that seemed cozier, and we loved our little corner nook that gave us privacy and a good view of the entire place. Our table was set with charming blue and white tablecloth that made me think of a picnic on the beach. We couldn't wait for this six-course tasting adventure to begin.
Since we were on a tasting, we had the incredible experience of trying nearly everything on the menu. The entire tasting consisted of meze (small plates of hot and cold food), and even the entrees and dessert were presented in this style, which worked well for us.
Course 1 - Starting with a gorgeous plate of housemade pita, sesame breadsticks (from Rose & Joe's) and a trio of dips and spreads including tsatziki, hummus and marinated Greek olives, we could tell we were in for a treat. I love this type of appetizer because you try a little bit of everything. My favorite nibble was the hummus, which was super creamy and garlicky, topped with something special - thin shavings of fried garlic, which brought up its flavor profile another notch.
A couple of other highlights from this course included a Long Island Oyster duet, a seasonal lobster bisque, and a beet and feta horiatiki salad. If you're an oyster fan, I strongly encourage the duo of raw and cooked oysters - the cooked one is fried to perfection in a Mythos beer batter and dressed with double smoked bacon and horta (dandelion greens) fondue. I've never had anything like it!
Course 2 - This course consisted of an all-encompassing seafood feast including char-grilled octopus, Mayan shrimp, baked (and raw) razor clams and seared diver scallops. We were impressed with the freshness and clean flavors in everything, but what really made us fall in love was the octopus. Sizzling with vim and vigor, the gorgeous pieces of octopus rested on a bed of fiery grilled tomato, giant capers and chick peas that added body to the dish. The best part was the texture of the octopus - crunchy and charred on the outside, but tender and not unlike a great steak on the inside. If you fancy yourself an octopus connoisseur, you have to check this one out.
Course 3 - A carefully thought out cheese course separated the seafood part of the meal from the meat. We received a homemade feta ravioli that looked like a piece of art, with a mavrodaphne (Greek black wine) reduction that was expertly brushed on a long, flat plate. The soft and slightly sweet feta filling exploded in your mouth and once again the dish was adorned with those delicious fried garlic chips.
The other cheese we received was a sizzling saganaki, which was a plate full of salty goodness. Consisting of an olive oil fried kefalotiri cheese, dressed with garlic, capers and Greek herbs, it was deliciously aromatic and a nice way to jolt excitement onto your palate.
Course 4 - This was my favorite course in terms of creativity, as Exo nicknamed it their Greek charcuterie. A plate of lamb meatballs (keftedes), a housemade liverwurst and the piece-de-resistance, a homemade lamb pancetta piqued my curiosity. I marveled at the pancetta's uniqueness - resembling its traditional pork sister in appearance, but not in taste, as it was a little milder and not as smoky. It was excellent with a crispy piece of pita.
Course 5 - At last, we got to the meat (and some more fish too), most of the offering made up of lamb dishes including a 5-hour moussaka, roasted lamb leg and seftalia sausage. The moussaka was my favorite, looking and tasting like a yia-yia's masterpiece, with tender pieces of eggplant, ground lamb, and a creamy bechamel top with a blistery crust. Fried herbs and spices further decked the top of this dish, making it the most decadent thing we ate. While it was a very rich dish, it was the perfect thing to split between two people, because too much of a good thing, can sometimes be...well, too much.
Course 6 - I can't believe we actually got to the dessert, considering how much we ate that night, but once it came, we had to at least try it. A long plate of Greek specialties such as warm rice pudding, galaktoboureko (my favorite!), baklava, loukomades (Greek donuts) and ekmek kataifi sent us off on a sweet farewell. My two favorites were the baklava - super sweet, nutty and slightly spicy - as well as the rice pudding, which was soft and creamy, sprinkled with cinnamon and two chocolate piroette cookies, which served as the dippers. Fun!
Service and Cost:
We received excellent service and by looking around the room, I could tell that everyone else enjoyed the same pleasantries. Exo very much feels like a friendly neighborhood restaurant where you can come and hang your hat after a long work day. It seems like they have some regular customers, which is nice and I'd love to check them out on a weekend or a Monday, when they do instructional cooking classes (more on that later).
Costs are moderate and very fair for the quality of food being served:
Meze - $5 - $19
Entrees - $12 - $27
3 Loud Mmmms