Friday, August 20, 2010

Would you prefer your octopus permanent press or delicate?

Thalassa (179 Franklin Street, Tribeca)

After watching "Turkey a la Queens," one of my favorite episodes of The Fabulous Beekman Boys (the hilarious and tender story of two city-boys-turned-farmers, and the only reality show of which I willingly admit to being a fan), I had to begin to wonder what other bizarre, untraditional techniques might lie beneath some of my favorite dishes, but I just never knew.  During the particular episode, Josh (author, ad exec, and former drag queen) and his partner Brent (former VP for Martha Stewart's Healthy Living) feed a vodka cran-tini to their Thanksgiving turkey just moments before beheading it.  The reasoning?  "Giving the turkey alcohol helps relax all of the muscles so that the bird will be perfectly tender and delicious."

I started thinking about various meat presentations I have enjoyed (or not-so-enjoyed) over the years, and had to wonder if the farmers had just thrown a few cocktail hours for their heifers, how much better the meat might have tasted.

Without question, one of the meats that can be splendidly decadent and delicious if prepared properly, or tougher than a ten-year-old gummy worm if not, is the temperamental seafood delicacy, octopus.  At it's best, it requires nothing more than a little oil and a small Greek salad accompanying it, and you have a feast fit for Neptune himself; at it's worst, it's a TMJ-sufferers most hideous nightmare.

During a recent visit to Thalassa, an exquisite Greek restaurant in Tribeca, I enjoyed what was--beyond any shadow of a doubt--the most gorgeously tender octopus ever to cross my palate.  It required no knife whatsoever, and the fork literally slid through the dish as easily as through a warm pat of butter.  It was exponentially more tender than any previous version I have tried, or any future I am likely to encounter.  And quite honestly, it stunned me.  Even more shocking, however, was the chef's candid response when I asked him his secret to preparing such magnificently tender octopus...

A washing machine!

That's right, Thalassa's Executive Chef Ralphael Abrahante has a washing machine designated for the sole purpose of tenderizing the Portuguese octopus before grilling it.  When questioned about the technique, he explained that you hear all sorts of crazy tactics typically employed, a common one involving the fisherman beating the octopus on the rocks repeatedly after catching them to tenderize the seafood.  Considering the alternative, a spin in the washing machine sounds exceptionally more humane.

After tenderizing the octopod, it is lightly seasoned with lemon juice and olive oil, grilled, and served with a simple fava bean and parsley puree, and finally garnished with a crown of organic microgreens.  It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "clean flavors" making this traditional Greek dish simply delicious.  But the exquisitely tender appetizer is just the tip of the iceberg of the exceptional experience that awaits at Thalassa.

Upon entering, you step into a bar that instantly transports you into a Mediterranean reverie of every soothing and serene image you have dreamt Greece to be.  Billowing sails drape from the ceiling like a summer yacht on the Aegean Sea, a mosaic of white marble adorns the curves of a 15-ft bar that offers an award-winning selection of the over 5,000 bottles of wine housed in the cellar just one level below.  The lilting melodies of Greek-raised master guitarist, Spiros Exaras, sing on a gentle unassuming breeze throughout the room as he strums soothing tunes from a stool in the far corner.

Gliding past the peacefully aquatic blue-lit entrance you pass by a gorgeous collage of imported Mediterranean fish and crustaceans, to enter a stunningly simple and elegant dining room of soaring 18-ft ceilings, polished hardwood floors, exposed brick, and olive trees.

At the far end, a balcony reveals views of the climate-controlled Wine Room a level below, where two 20-ft illuminated transparent onyx columns connect the two floors with astounding contemporary Greek flare.  A wine rack spans the entire length of the room, featuring international and Greek boutique wines.  The architecture and decor is breathtakingly delicious, and that's before you even raise a glass or lift a fork.

In my experience, the paradox of Greek cuisine is the high level of difficulty required because of it's simplicity.  How many different ways can you vary lemon potatoes or porgies and hortas (and even more, who first decided that dandelion greens might be tasty?)  When dealing with simple ingredients, a few seasonings, and olive oil, there are no sauces or bread coatings to mask a poorly prepared filet of fish.  So technique and freshness are of the utmost importance.

The food at Thalassa exceeds the definition of traditional or even contemporary Greek cuisine.  While maintaining the simplicity and integrity of Greek tradition, Chef Ralphael has grandiosely surpassed what I ever expected a few fresh ingredients and a master chef could achieve.

Take, for instance, our amuse bouche offered compliments of the kitchen, this particularly refreshing spin on tuna tartare, served here on a crisp cucumber disc, topped with a creamy taramosalata and roe... proof that simple, quality, fresh ingredients provide an explosion of flavor and texture that require no masking whatsoever.

A quintessential example of traditional Greek elements harmonizing for an out-of-this-world symphony of flavors was my personal favorite dish of the evening, featuring Maine diver scallops.  These tender seafood medallions are wrapped in kataifi, which is shredded phyllo dough, baked, and then decadently drizzled with a sheep's milk butter and white wine beurre blanc, diced asparagus, scallions, capers, and tomatoes, with a final zigzag of a kalamata balsamic reduction.  These divine seafood nests offered the crunch and savor of the land, the fragile ocean balance of sweet and salty, with colorfully tart and tangy vegetable ornamentation.  I made such a rave about how much this dish wowed me that the chef was gracious enough to share a simplified version of the recipe with me, which I have attached at the end of this post...  although I highly recommend initially trying it at Thalassa before attempting it at home.

The Horiatiki, a traditional Greek peasant salad, was yet another stunning example of how fresh ingredients with minimal accompaniments can sometimes offer the most astonishing explosion of flavors.    This particular version showcased heirloom tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, and a surprisingly silky wedge of Dodonis feta (a sheep's milk feta known to be creamier and smoother than the more common barrel feta).

For the main course, I savored one of the most tender filets of fish I have ever enjoyed, and was quite honestly impressed beyond comparison.  Chef Ralphael sprinkles the filets of Lavraki (known as Branzino across the sea) with an assortment of herbs, and then grills the fish whole.  The buttery and tender filet is accented only with a whisper of lemon juice, capers, and olive oil.

Having lived in Astoria with an ofttimes rather out-of-control sweet tooth, I can assure you that I have sampled many versions of traditional Greek desserts throughout the years.  It is without contest that I proclaim Thalassa serves the most exceptional version of my favorite Greek dessert, Galaktobouriko, a simple citrus custard layered with crisp phyllo dough and drizzled with honey.

If Italian cheesecake makes you feel guilty, than you simply must sink your fork into Thalassa's yogurt cake, a much lighter and creamier, yet beautifully sweet version of the Mediterranean classic, on a small pool of tart raspberry coulis, crowned with a candied fig preserve, and accompanied by a few sweet pear wedges.  A refreshingly light, sweet kiss for a perfect ending to an exceptional meal.

If you aren't afraid to pull out the stops, then why not indulge in a perfectly executed, moist, and rich molten chocolate cake dusted with confectioner's sugar and garnished with a mint sprig.

But if tradition is what best suits you, you would hard-pressed to find a more satisfyingly gooey, crunchy, and buttery walnut and almond baklava.  For a chef that would personally tell you that he is not a pastry chef, Ralphael most certainly has mastered a sweet ending that befits the finale to an absolutely superb meal.

Though I am saving Thalassa for the next time I really want to wow someone on a date, I could not more highly recommend a refreshing escape from the city into a serene and luminescent world of colors, smells, and flavors that genuinely transport you to a Mediterranean oasis.

Thalassa on Urbanspoon

Recipe: Scallops Wrapped in Kataifi
For the scallops: 
4 pcs extra large sea scallops
1/3rd lb. Kataifi Filo
salt & pepper to taste

Wrap scallops with kataifi filo and sprinkle with melted butter
Place on a baking sheet and bake at 450 F for 15 minutes

For the butter sauce: 
1 medium shallot, sliced
1 tsp. fresh thyme
8 oz. white wine
½ lb. butter chips that have been thoroughly iced

Cook shallot, thyme and wine until completely reduced (i.e. no liquid left)
Add the iced butter chips and whip continuously
Salt & pepper to taste
For the balsamic reduction:
2 cups balsamic vinegar

Simmer on medium heat until syrupy – approx. 45min.

Mise en place:
1 diced tomato
½ cup diced scallions and dill

Cut cooked wrapped scallop in half and place in the center of the plate
Cover with butter sauce
Drizzle with balsamic reduction
Sprinkle with cut tomato and herbs

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