NEW YORK – Just as I was standing in line outside the New Museum on the Bowery between Soho and the Lower East Side to see the exhibition by Mariana Castillo Deball, a Mexican artist working in sculpture, printmaking, photography, and installation to examine how knowledge and cultural heritage are produced, organized, measured, and authenticated, I happen to look into the window of a restaurant right next to the Museum and more specifically at a table with two patrons. One of them enjoyed a classic coq au vin and the other souzoukakia with rice and other meze dishes, a delicious octopus, and a salad. I look up to see the restaurant name and I am surprised to see Karvouna Mezze, a genuine illustration of my own culinary heritage and culture, a worthy companion to the Castillo Deball exhibition!
My journalistic curiosity, combined with the fact that I was hungry, changed my plans. I had to trace the authenticity of the flavors. I went in and sat at the bar and ordered a delicious cocktail – Crete 75 – with mastic, lemon, ginger, and sparkling wine, listening to Manos Loizos’ Zeibekiko tis Evdokias from an authentic recording. A blue sky painted on the ceiling with photos all around on the walls from unique corners of Crete, taken by Pamela Zaraba a great Polish photographer and among them, two great portraits, well-kept in the frames, of elders with their strong Cretan features. I approach the owner Dimitris Vlahakis, sure that he is Cretan, though I haven’t tasted anything yet, “Mr. Vlahakis, we have never met, I came in at random. I am a journalist for The National Herald and I want to learn about you and Karvouna Mezze…”
A civil engineer with a master’s in building construction, Dimitris Vlahakis, a cultivated and low-key man, was born in Brooklyn, worked in his field, but likes to set new goals. He initially experimented with Baraza, a small bar, with a lot of dancing, joy, and youth, and then started creating other small and successful eateries in New York and New Jersey, such as Motorino Pizzeria, Esperanto, Summit Bar, Izzy’s Pizzeria, Majestic Diner, and most recently Karvouna Mezze, his first Greek restaurant.
“I really love Crete, where I come from, but also Athens, where a huge cultural explosion has taken place in recent years. Despite the crisis, there is a great liveliness everywhere and inexhaustible creativity. This includes food. Greeks have returned to simple food without complexities and luxuries. They have taken street food to another level. This is also my spirit and my associates’, Peter Hatzigerou, his wife, and our chef Giuseppe Scalco. We do not promote expensive food with complex recipes. We want clean, simple, authentic cuisine with great flavor and real ingredients. Our first ingredients are oil, cheese, tomatoes, and meat. Our cheeses are from the mountains of Crete and our oil from our best olive groves. Without good basic ingredients, food is worthless.”
The chef, Giuseppe Scalco, who is Greek (Iosif Scalcos), had his own restaurants in Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens. In the last eight years, he has worked at Kellari and Merakia and now at Karvouna Mezze, where he told TNH, “It is the first and only Greek restaurant with tapas based on meat and good grilling. The grilling technique we use is like cooking with charcoal. We opened in late January, but the public has embraced us very warmly and the initial response is very good. Our recipes are from Crete, Kerkyra (Corfu), and Smyrna, but with a more modern presentation.”
I tried the peinirli at Karvouna Mezze, a type of open-faced cheese with meat pie in the shape of a boat, based on a 100-year-old recipe from the streets of Smyrna, the souzoukakia which originally attracted me, the spinach pie, the kleftiko and I had an explosive finale with the finest lamb I had ever eaten. I tried other small tapas, not because I was still hungry, but because I felt the need to write about these unique flavors I enjoyed at Karvouna Mezze, melitzanes papoutsakia, kontosouvli, and saganaki. I drank a raki and then a few more. I felt I was in a Greek restaurant in New York for the first time, that I was somewhere lost on a beach in Crete, in a forgotten taverna, and conversing with Barba Nikolis and Kyra Stella, who embraced me with their welcoming eyes through their framed pictures. They both passed away at around the age of 100, drinking goat’s milk and raki and gazing at the god-trodden mountain, Psiloritis.
Karvouna Mezze is located at 241 Bowery in Manhattan, open daily 5 PM-12 AM, closed on Mondays. The restaurant is also offering a celebration package for Greek Easter featuring a slow-roasted lamb dinner for the whole family. More information is available by phone: 212-388-0052 and online: https://www.karvounanyc.com.