A rock star buddy of mine once described Greek cuisine as “prehistoric Italian.” I don’t agree with this characterization, but it’s not entirely off the mark. Greek is the mother cuisine of the Mediterranean. I’ve been a fan since childhood. I love simple, straightforward cooking with fresh ingredients. And I have a serious weakness for olive oil, garlic and lemon, tearing through quite a bit of each in my own kitchen. While I appreciate the upscale turn modern Greek cuisine has taken (the offerings at Pylos, for example, are anything but prehistoric), I still find myself digging on Greek street food. And when it comes to Greek street food, souvlaki is king. Which is part of why I’ve developed a fondness for Souvlaki GR (116 Stanton), the brick and mortar outpost of an award-winning food truck business.
They get a number of things right. First off, they don’t over-reach. It’s a souvlaki joint, not a Greek restaurant. The menu is small; no Greek diner classics in sight. You’ve got grilled meat on sticks, salads, fries and a burger option. Pretty much what you’d find at a seaside shack in a Greek tourist area. To re-enforce this vibe, the décor is done up like a movie set for a Hellenistic courtyard scene, which seems like a tacky idea, but here it’s adorable. You’re not exactly transported to Greece, but the illusion is lovely, and easily fostered by a generous $7 pour of good Greek house red wine. (I’m of the opinion that good Greek wines are criminally underappreciated in this country, making them hard to find. There’s much more to Greek wine than retsina, though they have that here as well).
Souvlaki ($10 for 6 sticks, served with warm pita bread and tzatziki) is the heart of menu. Both chicken and pork are available. I have no idea what the chicken is like, because I’m not one to pass on pork. I’m pretty sure the pork version is made with shoulder meat, with just enough fat to remain moist when grilled. Six sticks plus a side easily makes a lunch for two. The pikilia platter ($10 for four scooping salads, a few olives, fries and more warm pita bread) is tempting, but unremarkable. The tzatziki is fine, as is the hummus, but the eggplant salad goes a little heavy on the liquid smoke, and the taramasalata tastes like it came from a jar. If you want to be wowed, I’d recommend the parsini salad ($8). It’s a perfect example of the elegant simplicity the Greeks do so well: chopped lettuce, feta, dill and scallions dressed in olive oil and lemon juice. After tasting it here I’ve started making it at home. My stepson described it as “an epic battle between feta cheese and fresh dill,” leading to our renaming it “epic salad.” I can’t offer a stronger endorsement than that.
If you’re pining for fries they’ve got ’em dressed with salt and oregano ($4) or with feta added ($5). I like dunking them in tzatziki, and they’re happy to offer a side of it for an extra dollar. They also have frappes (Greek iced coffee) for $3.
Souvlaki GR occupies a middle ground I like: too cute (and just a little too pricey) to be a dive, but nowhere near as ambitious (or as pricey) as a proper Greek restaurant. The kind of place I’d hit on a Tuesday. If you’re in the mood for grilled meat on sticks, a salad and a couple glasses of wine, two can get out of here for just over $40 including tip. Lay off the wine and you’ll be hard-pressed to break $25. It’s a cheerful place, and they have a backgammon board available for those interested in lingering over a game of Portes. During the day the place it quiet enough that it’s hard not to linger. The friendly servers seem to encourage it. Yassou, Souvlaki GR! Great to have you in the neighborhood.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
Since I’m on about Greek food this week I may as well mention the national cocktail: ouzo over ice. Many countries have their own anise liquors, but I’m fond of the Greek version because it typically balances the anise flavor with mastic, a plant resin found on Lesbos. Boutari ouzo ($16 at Seward Park Liquors) is one of the better examples one can find outside of a Greek neighborhood. It’s more nuanced than the popular (and more expensive) French Ricard, but scratches a similar itch. It’s also not the least bit sweet, which I like. To the uninitiated: drink ouzo with respect – the powerful anise flavor does a great job masking how strong the stuff is. The stuff makes a great aperitif, digestif or even accompaniment to a meze (selection of salads and little snacks served with bread). And it’s cool how it gets progressively cloudier as the ice melts.