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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Greek to Me

From the Metroland Vault Dept.: Saluting my too-many years as Metroland’s restaurant reviewer, here’s another from the early days. In fact, it’s the last one I wrote before taking a hiatus for two years, returning in 1990 after a succession of other writers discovered that it wasn’t as simple a task as it seemed. The Chariot is long gone, its space currently occupied by an Indian eatery.


EVER HAVE ONE OF THOSE DAYS when you can't think of anything good to eat? When there's nothing in the house, you don't want to send out for another pizza, you've been to the local Chinese place a dozen times in the last month, you don't want to see another piece of steak and you know if you don't think of something soon you're going to end up in the frozen food aisle of Price Chopper choosing yet another crappy microwave pseudo-gourmet dinner?

The Chariot's building, as pictured during
one of its on-the-market moments.
Al “To Hell with Hallowe’en” Quaglieri and I were supposed to get together for dinner and couldn’t think of a damn thing we wanted to tuck into. Until someone suggested a Greek restaurant down in the west end of Guilderland. An idea so refreshing that we were joined by significant others in a meal that was as delightful as it was different.

The Chariot was erected in a time when dining rooms were big places, happy hotel-like spreads unrelieved by varying levels and dividers of plants. It’s attractive in that context, with a warm bar off to one side of the room and a small selection of salads promising that no guest will stay hungry for long.

The menu is a combination of Greek and domestic classics, each described in brief – and your servers, who have an excellent knowledge of the food, will be happy to explain any of it in more detail.

There’s an unusually cheerful characteristic about the service. My notion of hell is being forced to wait on tables in a giant steakhouse in Passaic, and I still have nightmares about some of the more trying experiences I went through while in that profession. It’s so easy for the server to be the scapegoat, blamed by the kitchen when something goes wrong on the floor, accused by customers of misrepresenting the kitchen.

A peculiar psychology informs the relationship between owners and servers, thanks, no doubt, to the fact that the floor staff is paid very little – a special wage scale parallels the standard minimum, but is much lower to accommodate the tips that are supposed to constitute the bulk of the earnings. So, even as the server hustles to earn those tips, there are managers who push them around like so much cattle.

It hurts morale, which in turn hurts the business. Which is why it’s such a pleasure to be served by a staff that must enjoy a good rapport with the owner (who in this case also happens to be the chef).

Our server hadn’t been on the job but a few weeks and yet was very familiar with the menu and enthusiastic in making recommendations.

Even as we finished placing the order we were invited to sample the cold salads, a task to which Al and I leapt. Although he was at first suspicious of the pale paste known as hummus, he was delighted by the garlicky piquancy of the puree of chick peas and sesame seeds spiced by lemon and parsley. Among the other offerings were a caviar puree, a salad of pickled beets and a selection of cheeses that included the crumbly feta.

Wisely, we avoided too much of it. Our soups came out of the kitchen just then (I like the menu description: “SOUP OF THE DAY – always good”). My potato and leek (the French parmentier) was almost a broth, a nice change from the usually too-thick mixture. The others each had a Greek soup of beef and pasta in a spicy tomato base.

The plate of mezethes is an appetizer that features all the other appetizers: the spinach-based spanakopita, wrapped in flaky phyllo dough brushed with butter; dolmadakia, grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice; more cheeses, and a helping of “octopus fisherman’s way,” in which tender slices of the creature are given a delicate pickling.

Chicken Katina is one of the restaurant’s original recipes, featuring small bits of the breast marinated and sauteed, finished with a sweet demi-glaze. It’s offered as appetizer and entree, and my ravenous wife weighted down an already heavily-laden table by ordering an appetizer serving of them.

And then there are salads, your standard plate of greens and tomato here livened by olives, onions and the ubiquitous feta (this is unquestioningly one of the world’s most adaptable cheeses, one that, despite the sharp saltiness of its flavor, is an excellent accompaniment to stuffings, salads, or just plain couch-potato snacking).

And then the entrées, served with accompanying plates of vegetable (sauteed spinach) and potato (small oven-roasted nuggets). Sharon’s moussaka was the fluffiest preparation of the lamb-and-eggplant stew I’ve ever seen, light layers of meat and veg under an equally light cream sauce.

The lamb shish kebob that Susan ordered was prepared exactly to her specification (though why anyone would cremate good meat by ordering and eating it “medium” is beyond me). Lamb is a house specialty, available a number of different ways, but the chef is no slouch with the beef, either, as evidenced by Al’s stifado, a serving of marinated beef bits cooked in wine with pearl onions, served over a flavorful pilaf of rice.

Sweetbreads, my order, were dusted with flour and sauteed, lending the appropriate crunchiness to the delicate meat. The servings don’t seem at all massive, yet there was no finishing the entree for me.

And the prices, with entrees averaging $11 (including the appetizer table and house salad) are more than moderate.

We drank a dry Greek white with dinner (a challenging retsina is available for those with an adventurous palate, which didn’t include my party) and finished with coffees and ouzo.

Look for the special banquet menu The Chariot has available. There are lunches and brunches from $6 on up to a lavish $25-per-person blowout, with every price in between.

Dinner for four, with tax, tip, wine and liqueurs, was $110. METROLAND restaurant reviews are based on one unannounced visit; your experiences may differ.

THE CHARIOT – Route 20, Guilderland, 356-xxxx. Full bar, wine list with some Greek wines featured. Catering and banquet facilities. Serving lunch 12-2:30 Tuesday-Friday, dinner 4-10 Tuesday-Sunday. Reservations suggested. All major credit cards.

Metroland Magazine, 5 November 1987

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