Uncle Nick’s for Greek Comfort Food in Midtown

{57456}Who doesn’t have an Uncle Nick? In the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a scene that particularly resonates with me is the father’s introducing his extended family to the future WASP in-laws: “Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick and Nick.” Visiting Uncle Nick’s Restaurant on Ninth Avenue and 51st Street in what was once Hell’s Kitchen – the home of Greeks and Irish Westies – I could immediately relate. Photographs of the late Nick Manatakis, replete with a wonderful black Cretan moustache, adorn the walls to create the authentic taverna atmosphere. Uncle Nick was the father of the restaurant’s founder, Tony Manatakis. “My father was a true lover of tavernas and at home in them,” says Manatakis. “He contributed his special recipes to the restaurant.”
Uncle Nick’s offers a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, good food, and large portions. Small tables can be separated or pushed together to accommodate two or four people or a larger group. Sharing is encouraged, with no extra charge for splitting dishes, and portions are large. You might end up taking some food home with you. Instead of napery, you will dine off a paper placemat with a map of Greece. This affords some interesting dreaming and trip planning. You make your selections from a varied menu that I found entertaining on several levels. I enjoyed the descriptions of the dishes. “Avgolemono – traditional Greek ‘penicillin’ – a zesty lemon chicken rice soup.” “Frappe – the Greek conversation drink.” {57455}
The prices are entertaining, as well. Uncle Nick’s offers a wide range of kebabs for $11.00 at lunch, with the price going up at dinner to $18.00. An appetizer for two but could easily serve more – the Inopikilia—is $22.00, the highest price on the menu. This includes “hot and cold appetizers – octopus, sausage, keftedakia, dips, pita bread, olives, feta cheese, peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers.”
Uncle Nick’s has all the Greek comfort foods including spanakopita, moussaka, and pastichio, as well as grilled fish – a favorite – also at reasonable prices. The lunch menu features fried calamari, $13.00; fried flounder filet, $12.00; grilled salmon steak, $13.00; and swordfish kebab marinated and skewered with onion, tomatoes and peppers, $14.00. All are served with rice and salad, as are the meat selections from the charcoal grill, including a variety of tasty kebabs.
I had been to Uncle Nicks on earlier occasions, but not lately. This time, I was revisiting Uncle Nick’s with a critical eye and palate. I must admit that I enjoyed dining here. The food is basic but good even without a celebrity chef in residence. It is fresh and tasty, and sparked with those vital Greek flavors of olive oil, lemon, and oregano.
Among the cold appetizers, I give high points to the tzatziki – yogurt, garlic and cucumber, and a first-rate rendition. Definitely addictive. I also thoroughly enjoyed the melitzanosalata, the eggplant dip. This was fresh, beautifully seasoned, and sparkling with fresh parsley. It had a zesty flavor and nice bite.
I did find the taramosalata too salty and lacking the important lightness, and the scordalia – potato and eggplant dip – was pleasant although perhaps not in the four star category. The mixed grill of zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes served with scordalia was nice, although the vegetables could have been a tad crisper.
Another intriguing appetizer I recommend: the feta and tomato saganaki, baked in the oven with a sprinkling of oregano. This offered an interesting variation on the traditional saganaki with kasseri cheese. The feta and tomato works well together, with the sharp feta offering the right counterpoint to the sweet tomatoes. At Uncle Nick’s, one can also order “Saganaki with Egg” – feta over tomatoes and sausage topped with an egg! This sounds like one of the more exotic Cretan dishes that could be a personal favorite – the kind of restorative dish one might order after a night out on the town.
As for the dolmades filled with rice and meat, and served with avgolemeno sauce, I’m banging my fork for more! The dolmades were fresh and delicious, offering a delightful respite from the totally different canned variety without meat that I occasionally partake of when the need for that special flavor of vine leaves strikes.
The Cretan meatball and sausage sauteed in a wine sauce is described on the menu as “Papa Ponai”. This refers to the delicious pain of the hot sausage. This was a tasty treat, with the well seasoned meatball crisp on the outside, succulent on the inside, and the sausage well-cooked.
We also enjoyed the bifteki, “chopped sirloin spiced Greek style and grilled.”
The octopus was pleasant, if not superb. I found the underside a tad gelatinous.
I rounded off a meal with Uncle Nick’s Famous Rice Pudding. It arrives in a bowl with a cinnamon pattern on top. I had planned to just try it – and check out the flavor – but found it irresistible and consumed it down to the last grain or rice. It’s rich, creamy, and not too sweet. You can also enjoy traditional yogurt with honey and walnuts, or galaktoboureko, Greek custard wrapped in filo, or baklava. All desserts are made on the premises.
Uncle Nick’s puts out the welcome mat seven days a week. The restaurant is at 747 Ninth Avenue, between 50th and 51st Street, with lunch served from 11:30 to 4PM, Monday through Friday, and dinner 4-11PM. Saturdays and Sundays the restaurant is open 11AM-11PM. There’s also an Uncle Nick’s at 382 Eighth Avenue at the corner of 29th Street.