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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

The Classics

By B.A. Nilsson

Athos

1814 Western Ave., Guilderland, 608-6400, athosrestaurant.com. Serving dinner 4-10 Mon-Sat, 3-9 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Greek and Mediterranean

Entrée price range: $18 (pastichio) to $32 (grilled rib-eye steak)

Ambiance: comfortable formal

My introduction to Greek cuisine took place in Boston many years ago when some college-aged friends and I made a springtime visit to a buddy at Boston College. Being a pack of eager males, the hi-how-ya-doin’ portion of the visit finished quickly and we went, ineptly, in search of women. There is no reason other than our own patheticness that we failed. Somewhere around two in the morning, frustrated and hungry, we headed for an all-night eatery somebody had heard about.

It was a Greek place with an al fresco garden of tables, colored lights, live music and dancing. As soon as we entered, we were thrust into the middle of this melee. Food appeared. We were yanked to our feet and invited to dance with some of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. It was dizzying, maddening, delicious. Even such social misfits as we were welcomed.

These days, the most common picture of that cuisine is what occupies a corner of a page on a diner menu. Like most cities, Albany enjoys some exceptions: A Taste of Greece offers casual dining, while the recently shuttered Chariot was our long-lived exemplar.

Athos takes a different approach. You’ll find your favorite classic dishes, but they’re served in a more formal atmosphere than what this cuisine has hitherto locally enjoyed. Nicely fit into the former Cabernet Café on Western Avenue, Athos opened last August with the pedigree of chef Harry Hatziparaskevas generating excitement, thanks to the legacy of his Manhattan restaurant, Ithaka.

That promise certainly is borne out by the food I enjoyed during a recent visit, but the tone was set by the commendable service, beginning with the greeting at the door and continuing with a pleasant wait at the bar for my friend Peter.

It’s one thing to get your butt kissed in a routine show of groveling—a rare experience, to be sure, in this market, where service tends to be consistently lousy—but quite another when you really can believe that there’s sincerity attached.

So it was as I sat at the bar. I’m not much for socializing, as I still carry large remnants of that patheticness that undermined me in Boston, but the bartender was undismayed by my aloofness and knew exactly the amount of conversation to comfortably throw my way.

Then I met co-owner George Danes, who passed along a phoned-in ETA from my tardy friend. Danes and his wife, Sophia, embody that spirit of extended family that pervades the place. I think I was the only customer in the bar whom he didn’t know by name, which, of course, changed quickly.

Once my friend arrived and we were seated, we not only got a tour through the menu by a well-spoken server, but also were shown the fresh fish available for tableside preparation that evening.

Peter, who’d visited before, insisted on a starter even before we studied the menu, so we did said study with a plate of pikilia be fore us. This $12 appetizer features three of six available spreads. We didn’t have the chick pea purée (fava), potatoes and almonds with garlic (skordalia) or caviar mousse (yipes!), but enjoyed dipping warm, crispy pita slices in a fresh, traditional tzatziki, a baba ganoush-like smoked eggplant purée (melitsanosalata) and, my favorite, the creamed feta with peppers (tirokafteri).

Soup is also available for a starter: lemon-chicken avgolemono ($6) and a fish stew called psarosoupa ($8). Salads are sized for sharing; we split a horiatiki ($12), with feta and onions and, if your dining companion isn’t as fussy as mine, olives.

The hot appetizers page offers a dozen items priced from $8 to $12, including grilled octopus, fried calamari, mussels sautéed with tomatoes and garlic, spanakopita, a Greek sausage called loukaniko sparta, sautéed sweetbreads and more. On our server’s recommendation, we enjoyed the saganaki, a slice of stiff kefalograviera cheese sautéed to a crunchy brownness and served with lemon ($10).

Two pages of entrées are divided between classic and grilled dishes. Among the former, favorites like moussaka ($20) and pastichio ($18), a simmered chicken dish (kota kapamas) and many seafood dishes (sautéed Dover sole; shrimp in tomato broth; baked red snapper filet; shrimp, scallops, mussels and calamari cooked in a clay pot; $24 to $26).

For clay-pot fans, there’s also arni youvetsi ($26), which was Peter’s choice: an appealing stew of braised lamb with cheese and orzo in the tomato-based sauce.

Charcoal-grilled lamb chops also are available ($30), and other grilled entrées include salmon steak ($24), rib-eye steak ($32), quail ($22), filet mignon wrapped in bacon ($28) and my choice, brizzolla hirini: a huge pork loin chop, grilled and glazed and finished in the fire of cognac, a tableside treat. The meat was tender and moist, the combination of flavors exceptional. The accompanying rice pilaf and vegetable array complemented the dish well.

We promised each other that there was no need for dessert, but then the Greek coffee was served and there was nothing for me to plunge into it but a sweet slice of homemade galakobouriko ($6), a delicious collision between baklava and custard.

Service throughout the meal remained exemplary, although we did hit that winding-down-the-evening problem of finding a server to fetch us our check. But that was a minuscule blemish on a friendly, comfortable evening that certainly invites you to remain part of the family into which you’ve just been welcomed.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Capital Region Wine Festival at Proctors, dubbed “Romancing the Grape,” takes place this weekend (Feb. 27-28) at the theater in Schenectady and includes the onsite participation of more than 70 wineries. The festival kicks off at 7 PM on Friday with a lavish dinner prepared by Yono Purnomo of Yono’s Restaurant, who will present a menu that features his award-winning French-Indonesian specialties paired with Joseph Carr wines by sommelier Dominic Purnomo. The cost for dinner is $125 per person, and reservations are required. The festival continues on Saturday from noon to 4 with the Grand Tasting, during which participating wineries will present hundreds of wines alongside culinary delights from some of the area’s best restaurants ($50 per person). Also offered on Saturday will be a series of seminars: The One-Hour Wine Expert with Kevin Zraly, Sherry and Tapas with Andy Seymour, Cheese and Wine Pairings, The New Renaissance in Tuscany, and A Wine and Food Romance with Yono and Dominic Purnomo. Seminars require a $25 paid reservation. For more info, visit proctors.org or call the box office at 346-6204. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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