Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A banquet of small dishes at Zenon Taverna

I didn't even know what was coming. I returned from Zenon Taverna's bathroom in the basement to learn that while I'd been gone, my companions TL, LB, and JL had ordered two sets of the meze for us all to share, one fish (psaromezedes, at $18.95 per person) and one meat (kypriaki mezedes, at $21.95 per person). Either meze requires a minimum of two people ordering it, so for the four of us this decision was perfect. According to TL—who had suggested Zenon Taverna after going there with a different group—we were in for a major Greek-style feast.

Both mezes come with a set of cold dips and appetizers; by combining the fish and the meat meze, we were able to check out the full arsenal. Both come with a fresh green Cyprus salad of romaine, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, feta cheese, olives, and caper leaves (on which I found sharp thorns!); scordalia, a garlicky, lemony potato dip; tarama, another lemony potato dip but with red caviar mixed in; a beet salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar; and a seafood salad with squid, crab, shrimp, and celery, again with olive oil and vinegar. The octopus salad—same as the previous but made solely with chunks of octopus—and the salad of boiled potatoes and green peppers dressed in olive oil and vinegar came out as part of the fish meze, and with the meat meze came tzantziki, a yogurt and cucumber dip; melitzanosalada, an eggplant dip; and a dish of tahini, a rich sesame dip.

Everything came out at once, along with a basket of assorted breads and warm strips of pita, and I felt immediately overwhelmed. There was too much to eat, too much to try! After a little while though, I began to see that most of the salads had been dressed the same way, in olive oil and vinegar (if you hadn't gathered that already from the descriptions above), and many of them were much too sour and acidic. I found myself gravitating towards the ones that weren't, such as the tzantziki and the melitzanosalada, or pairing the more acidic salads with tahini as a creamy antidote. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed myself immensely, but I definitely had to eat many of the dips and salads with something creamy and/or pita bread in order to alleviate the vinegar sting on my tongue.
We spent a while making our way though the cold appetizers, and then the hot dishes started coming out, seemingly also in a flood. Among the first to arrive was this beautiful plate of fried calamari, which was hot and crisp and just greasy enough. It was one of my favorites, and I'm glad there was plenty of it.
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On the left, grilled halloumi, smoked pork loin, and chunks of "Cyprus sausage." On the right, the "Cyprus meatball." I liked the meatball the best; it was juicy and flavorful, almost like the filling of a Chinese pork dumpling, shaped into a log and dropped into the deep fryer. The grilled halloumi was good while hot but complete rubber once cold.
Souvlaki and sheftalia: the former, chunks of grilled pork; the latter, grilled pork meatballs. Again I found myself liking the meatballs the best—these weren't dissimilar to the ones above, though they were grilled instead of fried.
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Char-grilled octopus, squid, and enormous shrimp; pieces of quail. The seafood dishes were good although a bit uniform in preparation and taste, and the quail was decent.

As with the halloumi, once the octopus and squid chunks cooled off, they turned pretty rubbery. The key with this meal is obviously to eat fast…an impossibility considering the rate at which the dishes arrived.
The last dish to come to our table was a platter of broiled salmon, broiled (unknown species) white fish, and stuffed mushrooms with crabmeat. The salmon tasted just a bit fishy and the other fish was overcooked, so after we sampled them the fillets went mostly untouched. And neither LB nor TL like mushrooms, so it was up to the ladies to polish them off, although both of the men tried some of the stuffing inside.

I had a good time with this meal, although more for the feeling of bounty and surprise (what's coming to the table next?) than for the food. While I liked many of the items that came out, others were a pass. It's a great way to try out a lot of different things at once, though, and it's fun to do with a group. For the price, it's not a bad deal for the experience.


  1. yo that is too much food at one time yo; I can def. see you getting overwhelmed because I'm feeling that way and I'm just looking at your pictures! sounds like most of the food was kinda wack tho huh.

  2. Ya it was a ton of food, or maybe just too much variety all at once, like a buffet you were expected to eat all of. The food wasn't excellent, but it wasn't bad either.

  3. How did the quality of the food compare to other restaurants in Astoria? Were the cold dips flavorful? I hate it when I get Greek dips and they're bland!

  4. Believe it or not, I've never had any other Greek food in Astoria, despite living in the heart of it for three years. These dips weren't bland, but they were really acidic…I don't know which is better, bland or too sour.

  5. I think you know already that I have to say poo to this restaurant. =(

  6. Jess…ah well! I was cool with going, but the food was just okay.

  7. I'll start by saying Zenon Taverna is my favorite Greek/Cypriot restaurant in Astoria. I have been coming back over the last 6 years (4 of which I've lived outside of Queens). So that will definitely color my response.

    Meze is not for the faint of heart, you must be a big, adventurous eater. If you love intense flavors, especially salty, "vingary" and garlicly flavors, this is the meal for you. I wouldn't say that the flavors are too intense, this is just the way Cypriot food is traditionally prepared. Having visited Cyprus a few years ago, I can attest that the food served here is incredibly authentic.

    Addressing the halloumi, squid and octopus complaints, "great warm, but rubbery soon after", that is just the nature of beast. Prepare any of those dishes yourself, the texture quickly goes south as the temperature goes down. Once you've been exposed to this cuisine, you'll quickly learn what you can take your time with (the dips, some of the meats) and what must be immediately consumed (halloumi).

    Regarding the quality of the fish, yes, the cuts of fish served during the meze don't typically wow me, but for the price, you can't complain. If you'd like to have a meze-like meal at Zenon and get a good bit of fish, I'd suggest whatever whole grilled fish they're serving that evening plus the dip sampler.

    I've been to Zenon at least 10 times, I've taken several of my Cypriot friends there, I've taken groups of 30 there. Never have had a complaint, everyone has always left happy and dangerously full. For ~20 dollars, you get a family style meal that gives a very nice summary of Cypriot cuisine and will keep you filled for several days after, I don't think you can beat that.

  8. Hi Jake! Thanks for your detailed comment on Zenon! I'm not an expert on Cypriot cuisine, so I wrote in terms of my preferences. I'm glad you've had such good experiences with the place!