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I headed out to the wilds of Astoria the other night to check out Athens Tavern, a new Greek (no—really?) restaurant whose kitchen is being overseen by Yannis Baxevanis. And who, you might ask, is Yannis Baxevanis? Well, in Athens the man gets to polish his Michelin star when he's not foraging his own wild herbs, and for Athens Tavern he's recreating that herb-driven approach to Greek cuisine by foraging at the Union Square Greenmarket instead.
Greek wines are a fascination of mine at the moment, and Baxevanis' cuisine serves as an ideal showcase for them. His baked fish with aromatic greens (psari fournou me aromatika horta, if you want to impress your friends), stuffed with a tangy green tangle of sorrel, lovage, fennel and dandelion greens, was a great foil for a floral, citrusy yet lushly textured 2004 Vatistas Athiri ($23). (The Athiri grape variety is native to Santorini, though it is also found in other regions. It is, as far as American wine buyers are concerned, as obscure as you can get, but it's so appealing that someone really ought to fix that.)
My favorite dish, though, was a signature of Baxevanis', rabbit that's first quickly deep-fried, then sauteed with onions and bergamot (the fruit, rather than the rind); the tender meat in its rich, lightly tangy sauce is then served with some pretty darn delectable mashed sweet potatoes. It's perfect Autumn food, essentially, and the restaurant paired it a perfect Autumn wine, the 2005 Pavlou Kappa P62 Xinomavro/Syrah ($30), a robust red full of black cherry fruit. It had Xinomavro's classically elegant aromatics (reminiscent of Nebbiolo), yet with the Greek variety's sometimes harsh tannic attack given a velvety wrapping by the plush Syrah fruit. I've decided that this is without question my new go-to wine anytime I'm presented with a nice plate of sautéed bunny.
Astoria might be a hike for most Manhattanites (and certainly for readers in Dallas, say, or Denver), but if you make it to NYC in the first place, the additional few minutes on the subway getting to Athens Tavern are more than worth it.
Athens Tavern, 23-01 31st Street, Astoria, NY; 718-267-0800; no website yet.