(The Lamburgini--lamb burger on pretzel bun with crimini mushrooms & feta cream sauce)
Ovelia Psistaria & Bar (34-01 30th Ave.)
The edited version of this article appears in the November 2011 issue of BORO.
Tradition whimsically blurs with the contemporary in both culinary approach and ambiance at Ovelia Psistaria—the beloved Greek restaurant that celebrates half a decade of business this December. Outside, the café appears no glaringly different from the handful of others nearby.
Patrons sip frappes along Astoria’s Grand Avenue while noshing on such classics as a decadently creamy version of an onion-studded garlicky hummus with tender pita points, arguably some of the finest in this Greco-centric neighborhood.
Inside, reality slowly breaks, giving way to creativity and invention. Electronic butterflies gently flap their wings amidst the planters above the banquettes. On the mezzanine, a torso-less glam rock mannequin is caught with his pants around his Technicolor ankles.
At the bar—an enormous concrete slab studded with tiny pulsing fiber optic dots overlooking a glass-paneled garage door—regulars grow giddy on Rakomelo, a cardamom-laced moonshine served warm in a teapot.
The vibrant and eclectic décor is thanks to Chris Giannakas, the charming and charismatic criminal-law-student-turned-restaurateur who runs the front of the house operations. But he’s only one-fourth of the family team behind Ovelia. His brother and Executive Chef, Pete, was finishing his Ph.D. from NYU at Mt. Sinai when the two decided to launch a new restaurant in Astoria. “There was no way we were going to even try this unless we had our dad in the kitchen…” asserts Chris. “It’s a little different cooking for forty instead of four, and [dad] has been cooking professionally for almost 40 years” When father and mother, Ioannis and Evangelia Giannakas, agreed to climb aboard, the sons knew they had a recipe for success.
The menu at Ovelia brings together favorite Giannakas family dishes. Yiayia’s omelette, an egg casserole with French fries and feta, was a favorite made by Chris and Pete’s grandmother growing up. The monastiraki bifteki (classic ground beef and lamb kebabs) are affectionately named after a store frequented by their parents on dates.
And while mom and dad tackle the traditional Greek portion of the Ovelia menu, Chef Pete brings modern flare to the kitchen with his inventive fare. Though saganaki, a classic flame-broiled cheese, is offered as hot meze, the menu also boasts giant cubes of creamy feta that have been dipped in a sesame batter and fried, then drizzled with honey. Lamb is prepared in the psistaria “grill house” tradition (the name Ovelia refers to the ritual of cooking lamb on a spit over an open flame). But less conventional diners may want to tackle the exceptionally delicious “Lamburgini,” a tender lamb burger with sautéed crimini mushrooms, drizzled with a feta cream sauce, all on a house made bretzel (a soft pretzel bun jeweled with rock salt crystals).
Rock n’ Ribs Wednesdays feature an entirely different menu, with house smoked ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and marshmallow candied sweet potatoes. Their new raw bar receives shipments of little neck clams and blue point oysters twice a week. The organic, locavore weekend brunch features hearty open-faced sandwiches like the chip drip (with shaved ham, sautéed mushrooms, mozzarella, and hollandaise) or the shredded skirt steak with sofrito, both topped with an egg. “It can be expensive having such diverse, high quality ingredients,” admits Chris, “but when you invest that kind of commitment, people really can taste the difference.”