|Greek restaurants in New York used to be so hackneyed. Long after the corner Italian places had shed their proverbial check tablecloths and Chianti-bottle candle holders, Greek taverna-style joints with only occasional exceptions still insisted on the blue-and-white décor and the kitschy nautical theme.
Giovanni Rufino for The New York Times
The interior of Thalassa, a new Greek restaurant in TriBeCa.
You can still find plenty of these restaurants, with their plastic grape vines crawling up the walls. But in the last decade or so Greek restaurants have started to take their cuisine far more seriously and to give their customers far more credit. Places like Onera and Snack Taverna offer imaginative menus that assume people want to explore the Greek culinary world beyond flaming cheeses and spinach pies. And seafood temples like Estiatorio Milos have demonstrated that, with scrupulous attention to pristine ingredients and careful execution, they can charge big bucks for the elemental appeal of fire, fish, lemon and olive oil.
Milos, in fact, proved so popular that it spawned a small genre of Greek restaurants that charge by the pound for fresh fish, which you can usually pick out from an icy display amidships. Thalassa in TriBeCa is not related to Milos in midtown, or to Trata on the Upper East Side, but it might as well be. Its chef, Gregory Zapantis, cooked at both of those restaurants before opening Thalassa in a onetime warehouse for Greek foods on Franklin Street late in 2002.
With exposed brick, lots of dark wood and vertical spaciousness, Thalassa has the feel of an elegant townhouse. Blue and white do appear in the color scheme, though subtly, through lighting and materials, so that you don't feel that you are walking into a cliché. You can examine the fish display, next to a curving mosaic bar, but it's helpful to pay attention to the decorous waiters, who describe the fish, which are listed by their Greek names. Borbouni, for example, are better known as rouget or red mullets. They are small, and come four to the order, perfectly fried, lightly crisp on the exterior, and nutty and moist within.
Most of the whole fish selections are too big for one person to consume and have to be shared, less variety but more fun. Our waiter briefly displayed a two-and-a-half pound lethrini, or sea bream, before deftly removing the bones. The sweet flesh needed no more than its simple dressing of olive oil and lemon.
Appetizers offer more complexity. I loved scallops wrapped in thin, crisp kataifi pastry and slathered with rich, tart butter made from sheep's milk, a wonderful blend of flavors and textures. But a tender wild boar chop, which seemed like a meal in itself, came in an overly sweet sauce of honey and retsina.
Thalassa offers a wide selection of Greek wines, but for those not interested in experimenting when ordering $28-a-pound fish, French and American wines have their place, too.
For anybody wondering whether Valhrona chocolate has a place in Greek dessert cookery, Thalassa demonstrates with its stuffed kataifi crepes, that the answer is a resounding yes.
Thalassa, 179 Franklin Street, TriBeCa, (212) 941-7661. Appetizers, $10 to $16; main courses, $25 to $36.