#78 Cyprus: nope, no evil clowns here

six small plates; ponytailed angels, evil clowns, and over-energized two-year-olds not pictured

When I lay my porky little head to rest every night, I almost always dream about food. (Sometimes I wake up after chewing on my cheek.  My fiancé laughs at me.) In my favorite food dream, I walk into a restaurant and desperately want to try everything on the menu, but I only have one stomach, and I can’t order everything. I start to get anxious. And then the wonderful angel in my dream—who, oddly enough, sometimes looks like a Greek waitress with a ponytail and very sensible shoes—brings me 16 small little plates of food. What a glorious dream.

(And sometimes, I dream about evil clowns. Those dreams aren’t nice. And sometimes, my fiancé apparently has really amusing dreams, and she talks and laughs in her sleep. A few nights ago, I heard her mumble “I’m marrying a total pig. Heeheehee!” I am not making this up.  Not all of it, anyway).

a bowl of tahini, some garlic-potato spread, and a bizarrely large Greek salad... yes, my fiance is marrying a total pig

So then I went to Astoria’s Zenon Taverna, owned by a family of Greek Cypriot immigrants. The menu is unbelievably huge, and I went to the restaurant with only one very petite female friend, who (unfortunately) has the appetite of a hummingbird, not a truck driver. She brought her two-year-old son, who is mostly interested in grabbing random things and throwing them across the room; he wasn’t going really going to help us plumb the depths of Zenon Taverna’s offerings.

So crap, we were kinda screwed: barely two stomachs, and a huge menu, filled with Greek and Cypriot food. Sad story.

And then I saw the best thing ever: for $19.95 per person, we could order the Cypriot Meze Platter (Kypriaki Mezedes), which consists of 16 small plates of appetizers—enough to have extra food for a two-year-old to throw on the floor. Dude, it was like a dream come true, complete with a ponytailed waitress wearing sensible shoes! (Though it’s a funny thing: there was never a screaming two-year-old in my dream. Hmph.)

woulda been just as satisfying as stuffed pigeon... if only I had an irrational hatred of quail

In the first wave of food, the ponytailed angel waitress brought us a basket of bread and eight bowls of cold appetizers: melitzanosalada (eggplant and feta pate), tarama (red caviar blended with mashed potatoes), a surprisingly large Greek salad, a garlic-and-potato spread (scordalia), a squid-and-shrimp salad in an oily brine, tahini (sesame) dip, tzatziki (yogurt and cucumber) sauce, and a wonderfully simple marinated beet salad.

The best cold items were arguably the simplest. The tahini was easily the best I’d ever tasted—there was a delicious, toasted flavor to it, and it seemed far fresher than the typical tahini found in Mediterranean restaurants or street-meat stands. The tzatziki was magical: the perfect blend of yogurt, fresh cucumbers, and dill, with enough garlic to keep you honest. It was easily the best tzatziki I’d ever eaten—and that’s saying a lot, considering that I’m the grandson of a Greek restaurant owner.

pork souvlaki, which I happily stuffed in my porky face

The ridiculous part is that we probably could have stopped eating after the first eight plates, all of which were surprisingly large–even after accounting for the fact that some of the food was hurled to the ground by a triumphant two-year-old. But the food kept coming: fried calamari, roasted quail (yes, it does taste like chicken; no, it did not bring the same vengeful satisfaction as eating a stuffed pigeon), Cypriot sausage, roasted pork kabobs (souvlaki), delicious fried pork-and-parsley meatballs, another batch of grilled meatballs, barbecued slabs of sheep and goat cheese (halioumi), and smoked pork loin. All of it was spectacular, but the barbecued cheese was particularly special: firm and salty, with a delicious charred flavor to it.

Zenon Taverna was busy as hell on a Sunday night, and I suspect that the place rarely sees a quiet evening. I’m still convinced that it would be one of the very best places in NYC to spend a four-hour meal—bring a bunch of friends, order a few rounds of retsina (Greek white wine laced with pine tar… yummy!) or Keo (Cypriot beer, far tastier than retsina), and sit around for an entire afternoon. Sounds like a dream meal… and it’s probably way better than staying home and dreaming about evil clowns.

This Cypriot food excursion was sponsored by the incomparable Norm and Susan P. of Lansing, New York.  Thank you, Norm and Susan! In your honor, Norm, I used the phrase “best _____ ever!” as many times as I could in this post.  

The best barbecued slabs of goat and sheep cheese ever! (The smoked pork loin and Cypriot sausage were pretty badass, too.)

Zenon Taverna on Urbanspoon

Zenon Taverna 
34-10 31st Avenue, Astoria, Queens
Subway: Broadway (N, Q trains)

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