There are times in life when your memory gets triggered by little moments that can literally move you to another place. Sometimes it’s an old song from your past, something by Jackson Browne, Yaz, Squeeze (!), or maybe even that “If You Like Pina Coladas…” song. You listen and suddenly you are back in a time when you were a different you, an earlier version of yourself. That same time machine effect happens with food—with the aromas and tastes of meals from long ago. Think about it. The smell of grilling burgers (and lighter fluid) on the barbecue, of an apple pie baking in the oven, of a hearty ragu simmering on the stove. My childhood meals, for the most part, were cooked by my Mom (something known as Meatloaf surprise was in her top ten list) and more importantly, by my Persian grandmother, my Bibi. (My Dad lived in Manhattan but he didn’t really cook. He’s the guy who taught me how to eat out.) Meals at my Bibi’s house were (and still are) lengthy rice-inspired affairs involving meats braised with preserved lemon, tomato, and cumin, long-simmering stews of herbs, leafy greens and knobby roots, and crispy potato crusts banged out of the bottom of many rice pots. But with every meal, there were two hallmark aromas: lemon and dill. This fine pair was everywhere—steaming in the rice, livening up the spinach soups, brightening the yogurt sauce for the noodles. Nowadays, the whiff of fresh dill, especially when touched by the juicy spray of a lemon, takes me back to my Bibi’s house in Kew Gardens, to a time when I was a hungry little runt with a mop of dark hair waiting for her favorite Persian dinner. Not much has really changed today.
It seems chef Michael Symon, of Cleveland’s Lola and Lolita restaurants, must also have been reared on a diet infused with dill and lemon. At his cool, new whitewashed New York perch, Parea, these ingredients are set free to work their magic. While Parea, which opened a few months ago just a few steps from Gramercy Tavern is a Greek restaurant, many of the flavors he offers up—honey, yogurt, almonds, figs, and yes, dill and lemon—reminded me of my Bibi’s Persian dinners. But you need not have any heritage even close to the Mediterranean or the Middle East to enjoy the food at Parea. You could have been raised on chipped beef and peach pie, and you’d be quite pleased. This food here is terrific.
Owned by partners Telly Hatzigeorgiou (Slate, Soma, Play), George Pantelidis and Peter J. Pappas, Parea offers modern Greek cuisine in three parts: mezedes (little plates), orektika (appetizers) and kirio piato (entrees). I strongly encourage you to take a group of friends (a Parea, in Greek) and sit at one of the communal tables, and order your way through the entire menu. It may take a few visits, but you won’t mind returning. If you want to shake things up, you can punctuate each visit with a different cocktail (all $14) from beverage director James Stewart—like the one mixed from Campari, lemon, honey and tequila —the pink margarita —or the stunning Strawberry Meli, a fresh muddled strawberry festival more than a cocktail, made from 42 Below honey vodka, and mixed with a rarely seen cocktail ingredient but one that works—you guessed it—fresh dill.
Let’s start at the very beginning, with the mezedes—all $7, and all quite wonderful. Many are similar in concept to Italian crudo, like the sweet raw scallops that are shaved into thin slippery slices, tossed with pickled onions and bathed in spiced yogurt freshened up with dill, and the tuna, sheared into wide ribbons and dressed beautifully with tiny slices of briny olives, diced blanched artichokes and crushed almonds. Crispy nuggets of pork are tossed with cubed roasted beets and honey, and grilled octopus is pickled and garnished with tomatoes, scallions, and black eyes peas. Greek sausages—little plump links that are filled with warm spices like cinnamon and hot spices like chiles—are served with a yogurt sauce brightly seasoned with chiles and orange peel. Puffy zucchini fritters (keftedes) are wildly good, almost like savory beignets with dill and lemon in the fritter mix, and served with a tangy feta yogurt and lemon dipping sauce that I would have slurped down with a spoon if given the opportunity.
Our appetizers kept the food high going. We started with a salad of wild asparagus ($11), slim like haricot verts, that were tossed with greens and topped with a glistening poached egg that was good and yolky in the center and poured its yellow heart out, coating the greens in an instant. Grape leaves ($15) are not to miss. Here they are treated to sweet plump bits of lobster in the basmati rice and mint stuffing and set in a warm puddle of avgolemeno, an egg and lemon froth that wakes up your whole mouth.
But a surprise hit was the platter of house-cured meats ($23), which was not just a no-brainer platter of cured meats but a magnificent array of finely sheared slices of pork, venison, lamb, beef and veal, each one smoky and decidedly unique in spice profile with savory and sweet heat. Italians do nice cured meats and so do those folks in the land of jamon Serrano and Iberico, but I have never tasted anything like these before. These meats are truly exceptional.
Halibut ladolemono ($26) was lovely—three neat little fillets are seared until bronzed on the outside, milky white and silky on the inside, and set in a fava bean puree, showered with a few wild asparagus and watercress for a bit of a sharp bite. But the lamb loin skara ($26) was spectacular. Symon uses Jameson Farms lamb, and roasts it so that it is juicy, rosy, pink and perfect. The lamb is sliced into thin tender slices and bedded on a rich and tangy fig yogurt sauce, garnished with almonds, fresh figs and arugula. It was beautiful, and with the figs and the almonds—almost biblical.
For dessert—yes we made room and you can too, the desserts are on the small side—we had the donut holes—think glazed krispy kremes fashioned into puffy little nuggets, with a honey and lemon cream dipping sauce, and a little bowl of rice pudding, a super creamy version topped with grapes and caramel that my dear friend Alison was having a very personal relationship with.
As we rested our bellies and chatted about the meal—Jamie was waxing poetic about the lamb, Alison was still staring longingly at the now empty bowl of rice pudding and I was wondering how I might score a few more of the braided butter cookies served with our tea—I looked around the dining room: there was Jimmy Fallon getting busy with a platter of those lobster grape leaves, there was a sweet old couple sitting side by side sharing dinner, there was a table of radiantly pretty twenty somethings with enough cleavage for a Spring Break special. As I walked outside, I wondered whether a few years down the road, those young beauties might hear a song by Keane or The White Stripes, and catch a whiff of lemon and dill, and remember when.