A good Greek restaurant is hard to find.
Recently Athens Gyro underwent a transformation, from a gyro joint in downtown Riverhead to a white-tablecloth affair with king crab, striped bass and lobster salad on the dinner menu. The lighting and seating area had been given a facelift—now, gold molding adorns the ceilings and there are leather chairs instead of wooden ones; an aquarium, a small bar and an entertainment stage rather than bare space. It wasn’t the first time this space got a new spin on Greek-American cuisine.
Six years ago, this same location sold quickly prepared, inexpensive Greek staples. Prior to that, the previous owners of the space ran the Main Street Café, a Greek-American restaurant, which had been in business for 18 years. When John Mantzopoulos bought the res- taurant in 2004, “start-up costs were low because the transition was smooth. When you set up a restaurant you see the weak points and you enhance them—every four to five years you’ll notice that fran- chises go through makeovers, changing colors, menus. Every so often I like to change things up, evaluate the menu and see what sells.”
In its latest incarnation, Athens Gyro has emerged as a spot where locals and visitors alike go for a Grecian interpretation of Mediterranean cuisine, Mantzopoulos’s new renditions of small plate, Greek-American cuisine classics.
Last summer, I met Mantzopoulos at the Riverhead train station. He has dark hair flecked with gray, brown eyes and is wearing a white shirt, dark pants and black leather lace-ups. I’ve caught him midway in his morning errands before heading to the restaurant for lunch. He needs to stop by Schmitt’s Farm on Sound Avenue to pick up some produce. Driving in his black SUV with U2 streaming from the speakers, he speaks earnestly about growing heirloom tomatoes. This harks back to a segment from our previous phone conversation: “It’s hard to sell healthier foods. The food industry allows bad products to go into food that are chemically engineered to taste good but are not necessarily healthy. I can’t sell quinoa with fish and fresh mint; the quinoa just kept coming back to the kitchen and I was so damned irritated. Why can’t they eat it? It’s good for them. If people are din- ing, they should spend the money on good food, not consume junk.”
His Alice Waters–based approach may scare off some, but an increasing number of eaters on the East End (and around the country) know that there is wisdom—not to mention pragma- tism—in his rationale. Walking to the open barn at Schmitt’s, he picks up his order. Mantzopoulos packs in a crate of spinach, another of romaine lettuce, and a bag of mixed greens (Boston and red romaine) in the back. The total bill? Thirty dollars. He saves more by hunting down the best price/quality ratio for other goods. (“I try out a farm before I become a customer,” he says.) For peaches, he buys from Davis Peach Farm. For tomatoes, he goes to a purveyor in East Marion. (“I always buy two cases ahead.”)
How did he learn to maneuver on the island like a local? He grew up in Astoria, a second-generation Greek-American. His family was rooted in the restaurant business; one of his great-great uncles worked as a maitre d’ at the Waldorf-Astoria in the early 20th century. They owned a handful of restaurants and luncheonettes (“like those in the old cliché, the American diner with Greek food on the menu, except more old-fashioned”). He started out as a 15-year-old prep boy. Green- port became a seasonal refuge and a place for the family’s summer home. They used to load up with fresh food to truck back to Queens.
In the early 2000s, after moving his family to the East End, Mantzopoulos scouted the area and settled on Riverhead as a good outpost for a new restaurant venture. “Riverhead is more of a people- hub with year-round business,” he says. “It has a good central location between the two forks. The demographics have worked out well as far as the location of the restaurant. I figured I would cook Greek food because I have more experience in Greek cuisine than anything else and because no one else is in my radius.” (Hellenic, the closest other Greek restaurant, is nearly 25 miles away.) “When you open up a restaurant, there are a lot of mistakes you have to correct. If you have fewer competitors, you can get away with those mistakes. When the radius is more open, you might get a second or third chance; it’s more forgiving.”
So he feels safe experimenting with his restaurant, evolving its menu from standard Greek fare (as known to the Americanized Greek palate) to its current incarnation. The most popular entrée is the whole grilled fish, prepared with extra-virgin olive oil and Mediterranean spices (sea salt, Greek oregano, thyme, mint). It is served bones and all, with the fish varying according to the season (black sea bass, flounder and porgy have been among the offerings). “Whole grilled fish cooks so much better because the bone releases its natural salt,” he says.
And “if it’s not fresh or local, we don’t have it today,” Mantzopoulos says. “It’s a win-win situation: fresh is better and it gives back to the local economy. I don’t believe in the farmed fish industry. It captures fish in a high-level bacteria environment, and I’d rather not go that way. Time is the enemy factor of fish; it is not as fresh as it ages through transport. I try to use local fish or strictly wild fish, not from unregulated markets.”
Of all the jobs he’s had in the restaurant business, Mantzopoulos feels the most comfortable in the kitchen. “I need to have a visual on my product to make sure I’m getting what I’m supposed to be getting,” he says. “Overall, I spend my day here in the kitchen, 12 to 14 hours a day.”
That’s been time enough to create new dishes for the menu: char- grilled sea bass with fresh herbs served with a roast fennel cream sauce and sautéed spinach; chargrilled sardines with olive oil, cilantro and lime; king crab legs with ginger-sesame sauce, butter and black sesame seeds; lobster salad with white truffle oil, avocado, mayo and basil- pesto ciabatta. He is also testing out a lobster moussaka, substituting lobster for the beef in the layered eggplant and spiced meat dish.
For my mini-tasting, I enjoy the chargrilled calamari and otopus. The method of preparation reminds me of seafood I’d loved in Spain, cooked a la plancha, barely dressed, minimally cooked and very, very fresh. When seared and seasoned just enough to bring out the freshness of the seafood, the Mediterranean prepara- tion of the grilled fish can be wholesomely satisfying.