I recently dined with the Gastronauts at Loukoumi Taverna in Astoria. The Gastronauts are a loose association of adventurous eaters who come together more or less monthly to share the pleasures of dining on food with an off-the-charts “ee-eew” factor, lubricated with plenty of wine and beer.
Some of the past delicacies enjoyed by this bunch have been live octopus, cod sperm, Thai fried grasshoppers and guinea pig. You get the picture. The centerpiece planned for this bacchanalia was lamb’s head.
Loukoumi, the scene of the festivities, is a traditional Greek restaurant that normally serves less challenging fare. The dining room has an abundance of old world charm with exposed beams, stone walls and windows with shutters. The backyard garden, where our group of omnivores gathered, is enclosed by muraled walls, with a tent roof and electric heaters provided for the shoulder season.
“What scares you the most about this meal?” a woman seated across the table asked. The general consensus was “the eyeballs.” For me, they called to mind a particularly horrific scene in the newly released “Curse of Chucky.” I told myself to get over it.
Beer and karafkis of Greek wine began arriving along with a succession of dishes, most of them inoffensive to even the mildly squeamish. Arugula salad with pomegranate was familiarly piquant. Loukouni chips — crisply fried zucchini slices with skordalia (garlic dip) — what’s not to love?
When a choppy pile of something bright red arrived, the group perked up. “Lamb tartar?” we collectively wondered. Nah. One taste betrayed the absence of animal protein. It was dakos, a salad of hunks of dried Cretan rusk, topped with tomato, feta, capers and olives. Tasty and non-threatening. It was followed by taramosalata, a traditional spread of carp roe and olive oil. It was rich, fishy and salty as expected, and not at all scary.
Things seemed to be moving in the right direction with the arrival of thalassomezes, a platter of charcoal grilled octopus, calamari and cuttlefish. Then we got our brains scrambled. That is, we were presented with a version of glikadakia, created from a combination of lamb brains and sweetbread sautéed in olive oil with herbs and wine.
I could see this dish really going over with Japanese food lovers. It was bland and spongy, relying on its texture and richness for its appeal, the flavor being pretty nondescript. One fellow dinner commented that “at least sheep can’t give you Mad Cow disease.”
Another countered with the unwelcome information that “sheep are subject to scrapie, a similar condition.” Fortunately, humans are not known to contract scrapie.
A platter of bitter horta (dandelion greens), that most traditional of Greek vegetables, led up to the main attraction. The servers began distributing individual plates of halved baby lamb heads. They were served cut side up, but most of the dinners immediately flipped them over to face side and started snapping away with their smart phones. This was the moment we had all been waiting for.
The lambs were very young indeed, and thus not particularly meaty. There were a few bites of meat on the cheek and a few forkfuls of brain.
Then there was the challenge of the eye. After cooking, it looked more meaty than eye-ish. I dared a nibble or two, and it wasn’t half bad. I’m told that in some cultures, families fight over the eyes.
Loukoumi Taverna is one of Queens’ oldest Greek eateries. When not catering to the Gastronauts, it serves a menu touching upon all the Greek classics with a few of their own less commonplace specialties. We can assure you that nothing on the menu will make you say “ee-eew.” On the other hand, if you like to play Truth or Dare over dinner, check out the Gastronauts at www.gastronauts.net.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
45-07 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria NY 11105
Price Range: Appetizers $5—14.50, Mains: $17.50—21.50
Setting: Small, charming dining room and outdoor garden
Service: Friendly professional
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. — 10:30 p.m; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. — 11 p.m.
Alcohol: Wine and beer
Takeout and delivery: Yes
Credit cards: All
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Yes
©2013 Community News Group
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