October 3, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Avra: Fantasy Greece, No Passport Needed

Shocked glances come from fish-eating friends as I eat one greaseless zucchini and eggplant chip after another. 
Shocked glances come from fish-eating friends as I eat one greaseless zucchini and eggplant chip after another.

          West End Avenue never strikes me as quite as frowsy as it does the night I stumble into the blaze and blare of shiny new Avra Madison, the 17,000-square-foot, 207-seat blowup of a popular Greek spot on East 48th Street across Central Park.


 

Architect David Rockwell delivers a sunken pool, massive stone walls and Greek foliage to the Tao Group.

          Rouge Tomate seemed meeker, more modest, almost decorous in this same space. But as reimagined by architect David Rockwell for Nick Tsoulos, Nick Pashalis, Marc Packer and the Tao Group, masters of sprawling hot spots, the new Avra is already vibrating in its first week, drawing an Upper East Side crème de la crème.

 
Avra piles a cast of sea creatures on ice for fussy regulars to choose from.

          Wall Street tycoons rising and falling, millennial offspring of merchant lords and real estate titans, a hopeful corps of strivers -- aggressively slim and trim and stilettoed. I see an eminence worthy of a vanity’s bonfire. Many of them are sporting wristbands that supposedly tell you how many steps you walked today.


Crabs, prawns, swimmers from the Mediterranean—UES clams know them by the fresh glint in their eye.

          Surely, some here tonight are just neighborhood folk, gainfully employed upper-2-per-centers. And of course, there will be stalwarts of healthy eating -- especially when someone else is paying who can afford Avra’s fish-by-the-pound, “freshly caught whole and flown in daily from Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Florida, and New Zealand,” $31.95 to $37.95 a lb.


I study the catch of prawns, but decide to spare my dinner host the tariff of $53.95 a pound.

          I excuse myself to my host and go off to explore the glistening catch of yesterday on ice, deciding that I’ll be a good guest and not order the $53.95/lb. tiger prawns. I note Ivana Trump making the same hajj with her tablemates, remembering the fatal weekend we shared so many winters ago in Aspen. Eyes riveted ahead, she does not notice me.

 
Real lemon trees below and soaring branches above bring Greece to 60th Street in Rockwell’s design. 

          Let me note that I am recognized at the door and given my pick of booths anywhere in the room. Tao’s executive chef partner, Ralph Scamardella, emerges from the kitchen, his whites just spotted enough to suggest serious involvement near the stove. He promises to watch for my order and make sure the fish is not overcooked.


My companions, UES clean-fish-eating veterans, graciously accept my choice of local Black Sea Bass.

          I ask the very young and agreeable waiter if any fish might possibly come from local waters.  Red Snapper and Black Sea Bass, he responds. We order one of each for our threesome to share. “Give us the smallest,” I request, as if I were paying myself, and on a budget. The 1.29 lb., $45.09 sea bass has more flavor than the 1.10 lb., $34.05 snapper. I’ll grant that neither is overcooked, but neither is especially thrilling. Alas, neither is totally boned. Frankly, I don’t share Avra-fans affection for pristine grilled sea creatures. Next time, I might order charcoal-grilled swordfish with warm Yukon potato salad or Chilean Sea Bass "Plaki" for more fun.


A small local red snapper pristinely sauced at $30.95 a lb. tips the scale at just a bit over, $30.95 on the bill.

          Could be I’ve eaten too much while waiting, already had more than my share of the crisp cracker shards that come with feta on a board, and a trio of freebies: hummus, olives, and oddly sweet bits of radish. And shared starters. The Chilean sea bass soup with fennel and potato chunks in a light, creamy tomato broth lacks oomph.

 
“Gigantes” are giant lima beans, in a light tomato sauce.

          But the $21.95 mountain of Avra’s traditional zucchini and eggplant chips streaked with tzatziki is crisp and meticulously fried. I’m the only one eating them, I notice. Maybe fried is an Upper West Side affection. Great, late-summer tomatoes with cucumber, sweet peppers, onions, Kalamata olives, and feta are exactly what you expect in a Greek salad that costs $19.95.


Avra’s classic Greek salad tosses tangy harvest tomatoes with sweet green peppers, onions and olives.

          The inevitable octopus -- grilled jumbo octopus from Portugal (the option my host prefers over the octopus carpaccio) -- is tender and smartly caramelized on the edges, its sweet sootiness balanced with red wine vinaigrette. I notice well-born Gen Xers don’t finish anything, unlike us peasants who were taught not to leave anything on the plate because of the starving children in China. 


Grilled giant octopus from Portugal has exactly the right chew and fine seasoning. 

          The $10 desserts -- baklava with honey syrup on a delicious crumble and luscious olive oil cake with brûléed figs and lemon whipped cream -- are the evening’s triumphs. Worth walking a mile home or an extra hour with your trainer.


We share an elegant baklava with ice cream sitting in a wonderful sweet crumble.

          The elephant in the room is Milos, of course. Avra fans -- fond of plain fish by the pound -- remember great moments at Estiatorio Milos. Those who can afford Milos, go. Those who cannot, hope to be invited. Avra has always been a blissful comfort.


Moist, not-too-sweet olive oil cake with caramelized figs and lemon chantilly surprises “olive oil” doubters.

          Now, in this rich and regal setting, with the bold addition of sashimi on the menu, the reflecting pool below, a stone wall with rocks imported from Greece, sculpture by Fernando Mastrangelo, and a private dining room with walls of white rock salt, Avra loyalists can look Milos habitués straight in the eye, flashing their perfect white teeth.

          I’ve only passed one evening abroad in this land, but I detect a brilliant future already. Efxaristo! Thank you. 

14 East 60th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.  212 937 0100. Sunday to Tuesday 5pm to 11pm, Wednesday to Saturday 5pm to midnight.

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