2006-04-12 / Restaurant of the Week

S'Agapo Taverna Has Food From Crete With Love

The traditional cuisine of Crete, the southernmost island in Greece, is featured at S'Agapo. The name, which means "I love you" in Greek, is apropos when you consider the love that goes into each dish made by owners Kosta and Barbara Lambrakis. Located on the quiet corner of 35th Street and 34th Avenue in Astoria, S'Agapo's colorful interior features vibrant oil paintings, fresh flowers and tables dressed in linens in the colors of spring to reflect the season. There's plenty of outdoor seating for dining al fresco in warm weather and the service provided by the charming waiters is excellent.

The secret of Cretan cuisine is that only the freshest meat, fish and vegetables are used and they're seasoned with the simplest of ingredients: fresh lemon, olive oil, and precious few herbs. The freshness of the flavors of that sunny island are right here, thanks to the Lambrakis couple, who produce their own olive oil in Crete for use in the restaurant, make their own Greek sausage called loukaniko, and their own desserts, including Barbara's own phyllo dough.

Kosta had us try his own home style aperitif, a type of grappa which warms body and soul. While S'Agapo boasts a complete bar, we were quite happy with a carafe of the dry and light house red, which complemented the Mediterranean cuisine beautifully.

One of the highlights of S'Agapo is the incredible array of hot and cold appetizers offered. In fact, one could make an entire meal of these tempting dishes, each beautifully presented and served with warm triangles of pita bread. Kosta prepared tender octopus stewed with herbs and red wine that melted in our mouths. Their dolmades, stuffed grape leaves, are made on the premises and taste better than any others you might have tried. Even the cold dips, though widely available in Astoria, at S'Agapo are made fresh from scratch. Their flavors burst in your mouth. Besides the traditional eggplant salad and yogurt dip, some Cretan specialties such as parsley dip, creamy hummus, and grape leaves pureed into a spread were available. Fava bean salad bursts with flavor as does the mashed fava bean spread. Their home style keftde, or Greek meatballs, are lightly spiced and scented with a hint of mint for extraordinary flavor. Share some plump shrimp drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, then grilled and served with lemon.

Some special dishes offered on the evening we visited included tender zucchini stuffed with chopped meat and mild herbs. Artichoke hearts were prepared in a light lemon sauce and even on a cool evening spoke of spring. Near the kitchen, a refrigerated case holds a variety of mouth-watering meats, ready to be selected and grilled on the charcoal fire. The thick, lean shell steak ($24) was just begging to sizzle on the grill. Rib eye steaks are basted with fresh lemon and herbs to bring out even more flavor. Large, steel skewers hold fist-sized chunks of leg of lamb, alternating with tomatoes, peppers and onions for a shish-ke-bob fit for a king ($16). Chicken ke-bobs are made in similar fashion. Lean baby lamb chops or thick, juicy pork chops are on display too. All meat entrees come with Cretan style rice pilaf flavored with a secret spice blend.

S'Agapo acknowledges the important role fish plays in the Aegean diet with fresh porgy or red snapper basted in olive oil, lemon and herbs and grilled whole on the charcoal fire for maximum flavor. We watched intently as the waiter skillfully filleted a whole sea bass for the table next to us. That particular party also ordered a big plate of pastitsio, a traditional Greek dish incorporating pasta, ground meat, herbs and a light bchamel sauce. Try the sea scallops sauted with fresh tomato, herbs and white wine ($22). In addition, S'Agapo offers at least a dozen vegetarian and vegan options and is even included in some guidebooks intended for those avoiding animal products.

Barbara's home style apple strudel is wonderful, especially since she makes her own phyllo dough for the flakiest crust ever. Her baklava and semolina are ambrosia fit for the gods, so please save some room for dessert along with a cup of clove tea or freshly brewed coffee.

Lunch offers wonderful options too, such as beautiful wraps filled with their home style sausage, grilled, marinated chicken breast or grilled pork filet ($7). Hot lunch entrees include spaghetti Santorini made with shrimp, fresh tomatoes and creamy feta cheese. It's no wonder that S'Agapo is a regular eatery for the many staff and crew at nearby Kaufman Astoria Studios and the Museum of the Moving Image. Even Manhattanites make the trip to S'Agapo for fine food, service and great atmosphere.

S'Agapo is open seven days a week from noon to midnight. Visa, MC and Diners Club are accepted and orders can be packed for take-out. Bring someone you love to S'Agapo, where love of fresh, simple food is evident in every bite.

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