The Vegetarian Option: Agnanti Meze
The 1960's saw a huge wave of Greek immigrants to New York, specifically to Queens. In fact, Astoria has one of the world's largest Greek populations outside of Greece itself. Although these days we food-obsessed bloggers tend to gravitate towards places like Flushing and Jackson Heights, there are still lots of Greek restaurants in Astoria worth exploring. When doing research into these restaurants, one name kept popping up: Agnanti Meze. I decided that I would avoid the staples of Greek-American restaurants. That meant no stuffed grape leaves, no spanikopita, and definitely no "Greek salad"—though I confess I was tempted to order the moussaka, until I learned there was meat in it.
I began my meal with the mushroom kalitsounia ($12), which was wrapped in homemade dough. I was expecting something phyllo-like; what I got was something much different. The chopped mushrooms were wrapped in a thick, crumbly pastry, and it definitely felt homemade. What really completed the dish, though, was the thick yogurt studded with lemon zest. The cool, tangy yogurt offset the hot earthiness of the mushroom pockets.
I'd heard of keftedes (Greek meatballs) before, but I'd never seen a vegetarian one on a restaurant menu. At Agnanti they have a few different ones; I ordered the kolokythokeftedes ($8), a croquette made with zucchini and cheese. Although they looked simple they packed a lot of flavor into each bite. The shredded zucchini is mixed with creamy, tangy, salty cheese, then deep fried until crisp on the outside. A squirt of lemon was all they needed. My only complaint: they weren't quite warm all the way through.
For an entree I ordered from the section of the menu labeled "Tastes of Constantinople". Fasolia plaki ($6) is a dish of lima beans and vegetables in a thin tomato sauce. This dish was inconsistent—because it was baked in the oven, the beans on top were hard and undercooked while those on the bottom were soft and velvety. The dish was also woefully short on salt; once I added some I was more able to enjoy the rich, warm stew. The complimentary bread, grilled and smeared with olive oil and dried oregano, made an ideal vehicle for sopping up the tomato sauce.
Just when I thought my meal was over, my server brought me a dessert, on the house. At first I thought that maybe they'd noticed my taking photos and making notes, but it turns out that every diner at Agnanti gets a free dessert: a plate of Greek yogurt, preserved sour cherries, and a cake made with cinnamon and walnuts. It was a lovely way to end the meal.
I left Agnanti full and satisfied, with a new appreciation for Greek food. I don't think I'm completely done with those generic Greek specialties I mentioned before, but I'm already planning another trip to Agnanti for some more food beyond the ordinary. There are plenty of other vegetarian items on the menu for me to try.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.