In Greece, locals commonly dine and hang out at tavernas rather than the more formal estiatorios. Axia means “worthy,” and as a place to socialize, this five-month-old certainly lives up to its name. Saturday night reservations are hard to come by, and a prosperous-looking clientele of mostly boomer-age couples keeps it busy.
The upstairs/downstairs space, originally a three-story home just off the town square, has been stunningly transformed by Tony Chi & Associates, the hot New York firm also responsible for the design of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant at the Borgata. Axia’s handsome slate walls with white woodwork, blond wood floors, and acres of plate glass make a clean, bright, modernist statement.
The kitchen, too, has a pedigree. Norwood-raised chef Alexander Gorant was sous chef at Town and Artisanal in Manhattan, and also worked at Le Bernardin and Patroon. He is Greek-American, but admits he did not grow up eating Hellenic food. So last summer he studied in Greece with Athens-based consultant Diane Kochilas, author of six books on Mediterranean cuisine.
If you ask the waitstaff, who tend to be enthusiastic but inexperienced teenagers, they will tell you that everything on the menu is “awesome.”
In fact, Axia is consistently inconsistent. It takes confidence and flair to pull off the alchemy of sun and sea that is Greek cooking, but Gorant’s execution comes across as tentative. A fried shrimp appetizer with saffron skordalia (potato-garlic spread) was caked with unseasoned batter and bore zero trace of garlic. Grilled smoked eggplant proved to be a raw-tasting mash, and a tomato stuffed with rice and seafood was bland.
The kitchen did better with wonderfully fluffy beef meatballs, and pork sausage sparked with orange zest (both made in-house); tender grilled octopus; and a luscious three-cheese pie (feta, manouri, and myzithra) in phyllo.
Fish and lamb are the glories of Greek cooking, but Axia’s pan-seared barbounia, or red mullet, was wan and limp. Skate wing arrived tender inside but burdened with a mushy crust. Coriander-crusted tuna was sushi-grade fresh, but it lacked any coriander flavor.
Inconsistent? Axia’s “porterhouse,” a lamb T-bone, served properly medium rare, was tender and juicily flavorful. Yet leg of lamb stuffed with a feta mixture was over-roasted and tough.
Gorant overdosed his moussaka with cinnamon, but showed more restraint with that spice in his pastichio, the classic casserole of ground beef, ziti, and béchamel. Side dishes are à la carte. Only the creamy olive-oil mashed potatoes and the oregano-dusted “Ionian” fries are worth ordering.
Desserts are erratic. Semolina custard was mummified in brittle phyllo, and apple fritters were all crust. Frozen halvah had the crystalline texture of thawed and refrozen ice milk, and a cookie plate was not only skimpy but stale. Gorant’s house-made ice creams are the best bet. Feta flavor was a failed experiment in tartness, but two other flavors—Greek coffee, and sweet-spicy resinous mastica—captured the Aegean in a spoon.Click here to leave a comment