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The Real Moussaka

by B.A. Nilsson on October 27, 2011

The Greek House

The Greek House, 27 Third St., Troy, 272-6058, thegreekhouse.net. Serving 11-9 Mon-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Greek

Entrée price range: $6.50 (veggie gyro) to $18.50 (grilled marinated lamb shanks)

Ambiance: storefront

What constitutes authentic? It’s one of the major dilemmas for foodies. We want to see some version of Mom in the kitchen, working from yellowed recipe cards if recipes even are needed. We want it served in a shack in a lousy neighborhood, as if a sense of danger is part of the pedigree. So if the moussaka arrives on a fancy plate and is served on a linen-draped table in a place with valet parking, its bona fides are doubted.

The moussaka I’m writing about arrived on a white rectangular plate, crowded against a pile of thick fries. The table was draped, but with nothing fancy. And the facility itself is a storefront on Troy’s Third Street, just off Monument Square. Not hoity-toity enough to seem inauthentic, but lacking any hint of squalor.

As for a culinary judgment, I’ll put it like this: I make a terrific moussaka. I’m a dab hand at the béchamel that goes on top of the Greek version. But what I was served at the Greek House (it’s $12.75) blew mine right out of the water. This was a béchamel from heaven, fluffy and rich.

“Most people make the béchamel too fast,” says Dina Galeos, who works with owner Chris Krystallis in the four-month-old eatery, and who made the dish I sampled. “It has to be heated very slowly to get the consistency right.” She had me there. The sauce begins with a roux, a flour and butter mixture that’s cooked until light brown, over which you pour milk and then whisk over low heat for an eternity. Except that I’ve long since gotten into the habit of goosing the gas. Which means that authenticity begins with the most basic techniques.

Back to the moussaka. The excellent mass of meat below (it’s actually a seasoned ground beef and eggplant mix) might as well have been an afterthought—except that it’s not, it’s there, and it all comes together as the best example of the dish I’ve tasted this side of Astoria. That’s the Greek center of New York City, the section of Queens in which my father grew up, although his parents were Hellenophobic enough that any visits I made to local restaurants had to be done on the sly. Although the neighborhood now is as ethnically mixed as you can imagine, there still are Greek outposts, and Galeos said that many of the ingredients used in her restaurant are sourced therefrom. Krystallis’ father is from a village near Mykonos; Galeos was born near Sparta. They’re steeped in tradition enough that it’s not a kitchen with recipe cards.

The cold appetizer features are spreads, served with warm pita. Choose from tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber, $4.50), revithosalata (chickpea and onion, $4.75), melitzanosalata (eggplant and garlic, $4.75), taramosalata, the so-called Greek caviar, a lemony fish roe, $4.50) and tyrokafteri (spicy feta cheese, $4.75)—or any three of the above for $10.50. I sampled the spicy feta, which proved to be unexpectedly rich for such a seemingly small portion.

Among the hot apps are keftedakia, a type of meatball ($6.25), little puffs of feta-stuffed phyllo ($6), spanakopita puffs ($6.25) and saganaki ($6.75), a fried hard cheese (kefalograviera, if you must know) that, we discovered, puts the whole fried brie thing to shame with its richness. One of those things you know you shouldn’t, dietarily speaking, be eating, even as you’re unable to stop.

The traditional avgolemeno soup (lemony chicken and orzo, $5.75) also is available, along with salads large and small featuring feta and kalamata olives with some variety ($5.75-$9).

Gyros are carved off a vertical rotisserie, which explains why my wife’s order of an original gyro ($7.25) was so good. We have a few area restaurants featuring the loaf of slowly roasting pressed meat, and each is different. Here the meat, which is lamb-intensive, seems a little puffier, probably the result of fat distribution. (It’s the vertical application of fat that makes the rotisserie meat so good in the first place.) It’s served wrapped in a large loaf of pita with a generous application of tzatziki. If that’s too intimidating, you can get a veggie gyro ($6.50).

I probably shouldn’t get into the pronunciation issue. I’ve discussed it with native speakers, who long ago learned to tolerate the rambunctious American way of turning “hero” into “jeye-ro.” I’ve asked for it as a “hero” and been asked, “oh, you mean a ‘jeye-ro’?” But I was pleased to note that my wife, who otherwise stubbornly refuses to pronounce “cumin” correctly, asked for it as a “hero” and won a smile of approbation from Galeos. So there you are.

Souvlaki are chunks of marinated meat grilled and served in a similar pita set-up. Chicken ($6.75) and pork ($7) are available. But if you want the true grill experience, go for shish kabob. These are styled as platters, with lemon potatoes and a small Greek salad on the side, along with tzatziki and pita. My daughter ordered the veggie version ($15.75), which featured such a rich array of mushrooms, carrots, eggplant and peppers that you could overlook its lack of meat. But if meat is required, choose from chicken ($16), pork ($16.75) and lamb shank ($18.50).

Spanakopita may, after baklava, be the best-known Greek dish. It’s chopped spinach and feta baked in a crust of flaky phyllo ($9.25). And if all else fails, there’s a Greek Burger served with red onions, tomatoes and feta for $9.75.

We passed on the baklava ($4.50) only because a couple of not-on-the-menu desserts were available: kadaife ($4.50), which looks like shredded wheat but is a light pastry stuffed with nuts and sweetened with honey, and kourabiede ($1.50), an almond-rich shortbread cookie.

Some restaurants are born authentic; some have authenticity thrust upon them. I’m attempting the latter, I suppose, but I suspect the former already prevails.