The new general manager lowered the lights in the tavern space he created. The new mixologist brought in a line of New York-crafted beers. And the new chef is reading the Iliad. Thus has Athos pursued the need for growth and change—and those are hardly the only things happening behind the scenes.
When Athos opened in 2008 at 1814 Western Ave. in Guilderland, in a building that had housed Figliomeni’s and Cabernet Café, it was taking over the tradition of offering fine Greek dining that had been the 34-year legacy of its down-the-road neighbor, the Chariot.
Athos had as its chef and part-owner Harry Hatziparaskevas. Chef Harry, as he is known to all, opened Athos on the heels of the excellent legacy of his Manhattan restaurant, Ithaka. It quickly established a commendable reputation not just for gourmet Greek fare but also for a fine-dining experience in a comfortable setting.
But the owners shrewdly saw a need for careful growth, and three years ago brought on board Rob Gavel as general manager. Gavel was born and raised in Amsterdam, with no particular interest in the restaurant business at first. “I was working in the travel industry, for an Irish tour company, when I decided to attend the Culinary Institute. I’d always enjoyed cooking and entertaining, but hadn’t considered it as a profession. I interned at Fine Cooking magazine, and soon after I graduated I was doing food styling for Paula Deen.”
Gavel owned Café 1795 in Schenectady’s Stockade area for three years before returning to work as a private chef, this time for a well-known publisher in Manhattan. “I live up here, so it meant a back-and-forth to the city every week, and that got old.” His association with Athos began as a patron, “and I enjoyed it so much that friends and I made repeat visits. When I heard they were looking for a general manager, I thought I’d be right for it.”
He went into a restaurant that already was doing well, “but I saw where I could polish the place. I added live jazz and OpenTable reservations.” He turned the bar area into the Taverna, featuring its own menu, “and I lowered the lights and added candles.”
Lara Davi is the only certified mixologist in the Capital Region, something she pursued thanks to chef Dale Miller’s encouragement. “Dale is a great advocate of education,” she says, “and wanted me to know everything I could about this part of the business.” Davi opened Miller’s eponymous eatery in Albany, and traveled with him to Sperry’s when he became chef at that Saratoga mainstay. “Which means I spend seven to eight months at the place, getting its bar service in shape.” When she heard that Athos was looking to fill a similar position, “I told Dale I might jump on it and he encouraged me to do so.” But she doesn’t plan on spending a mere few months. “I’m here to stay.”
The most important element of a successful restaurant is consistency. Louis Agostinello, who is now the executive chef at Athos, well understands this. He’s been in the business for more than 16 years, and an early stint at Jack’s Oyster House put him in the kitchen with Miller and Stratton Sokaris, who would become one of the owner-partners of Athos.
Agostinello’s post-Jack’s journey took him to the Culinary Institute, where, despite his many years of cooking experience, “I put it all out of my mind. I learned what they had to teach me. Every one you work with has something to teach you.”
When he applied for the job at Athos, Agostinello was reunited with Sokaris—and worked alongside chef Harry. “We hit it off right away,” says Agostinello, “but he wasn’t the type who worked with recipes. When he said he was going to retire and they decided to hand it over to me, I spent four months putting together a book of the classic Greek dishes he cooked. I had to convert ‘a little of this, a handful of that’ into actual measurements, and I also immersed myself in the culture so that I could understand not only what the dish should taste like but also how its place of origin helped create it.
“For example, Harry would make a fish stew called kakavia, which I realized was like the French bouillabaisse, but geared to whatever was caught fresh in a particular area. And it dates much further back than the French version. I found a drawing of Poseidon handing what’s obviously a bowl of kakavia to Zeus.”
The menu preserves chef Harry’s traditions, but has changed in subtle ways. Agostinello respects dietary restrictions, and offers one of the more vegetarian-, vegan- and gluten-free-conscious menus in the area. “And I can prepare pretty much anything on the menu gluten-free,” he adds. “You just have to let me know.”
He says that a single, solemn statement from co-owner Sophia Socaris burns in his mind. “She looked at me one evening, after I’d been working with chef Harry for a while, and said, ‘Cook. Greek.’ I understood that there was a lot in that statement, and I’ve been following it ever since.’”