For any restaurant, a 29-year run is a Homeric accomplishment. For a Greek restaurant in Astoria, the Queens neighborhood known for its traditional tavernas and time-honored cafés, it takes the strength of Zeus, the wisdom of Athena, and Dionysus’ love of food and wine to complete such a marathon.
Now, Telly’s Taverna has a second location, on Abendroth Avenue (near Costco) in Port Chester. It is a commodious space, with seating for 200; an elevated sidewalk café; a long, attractive bar; and a private room that seats 70. The décor is nautical, a nod to the Aegean-influenced seafood-centric menu, cute without being too kitschy. An iced display of today’s catch, ships ropes, seashells, whitewashed walls, and gray banquettes dominate the space.
It is good to go with a group. Portions are, for the most part, generous and ideal for sharing. Chef-owner Dianna Loiselle’s dishes lean toward simple, straightforward, and unadorned (some might say stark) preparations and presentations. She wants to let the ingredients speak for themselves, and they do.
Appetizers are sectioned into vegetables, cheeses, and dips, and are served family-style. We tried the dip combination: taramasalata (cured cod roe), skordalia (garlic and potato), and tzatziki (cucumber and yogurt). All were delicate, airy, and light, served with freshly toasted pita triangles. The hit of the group was the kafterie, a spicy, tangy, feta-based option that quickly disappeared from our table.
The two cheeses we tried were excellent. Pan-fried kasseri (saganaki) was subtle and soft, grilled Halloumi heartier and robust. Grilled eggplant was smoky and satisfying.
Salads are more than generous and come in two sizes. Telly’s version of a Greek salad has large chunks of tomato, cucumber, feta, red onions, and black olives, with nary a speck of chlorophyll in sight. Nana’s salad is a chopped affair of greens and feta. Both come with a jaunty pepperocini on top, dressed with excellent extra virgin olive oil, oregano, and an almost imperceptible whisper of vinegar.
Whoever is slinging seafood on Telly’s grill is surely making Poseidon proud. Everything that we were served from the powerful, smoldering embers came out perfectly prepared, charred on the outside, moist and tender within. The calamari, octopus, enormous shrimp, dorado (along with the aforementioned eggplant and Halloumi) were devoured with gusto, as were the lamb chops (which would have benefited from a finer trim on the butcher’s blade). One small miscommunication happened when we ordered the halibut special. I asked the waiter if it was a thick fillet, and she assured me it was. It came out butterflied and thin but was delicious nonetheless.
An anomaly is that all of the charcoal-grilled meats come with freshly fried potatoes, yet the seafood selections do not. Why not equal accompaniments for all? You should also be aware that essentially everything from the grill is simply sauced with lemon, oregano, and olive oil.
There is a section of Greek specialties that includes such classics as gigantes (giant lima beans in tomato sauce), garides saganaki (shrimp with feta), and avgolemono. Pastitsio, moussaka, and spanakopita are all made to order, the latter a very rustic rendition of homemade phyllo dough stuffed with seasoned spinach.
Despite all the successes, however, there were some miscues. Keftedakia are billed as fried meatballs, and that is what they are. But six round, brown, ping-pong-ball-sized bits of beef definitely need something to better complement their crispy crust than a sprinkling of chopped parsley. Both the horta (dandelion) and beet bottoms and greens served as side dishes were simply boiled and plopped on the plate. The lemon potatoes were tasty, but five strips of oven-baked russets left us wanting for more.
During the week, diners are offered loukoumades as a complimentary dessert. These rounds of fried dough are served warm, drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. House-made baklava and yogurt with fruit preserves are other options.
The service can be spotty. There are a number of seasoned veterans on the floor but an equal number of trainees who try their hardest but need a few more instructional shifts before they are ready for prime time.
Ambience is something that a restaurant can create. In this age of customized playlists, relying on a radio station is passé. Good restaurants also have a buzz. Creating one may be Telly’s Achilles’ heel. Opa is a Greek word of enthusiasm and celebration, especially for food and drink. Just like Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx, Telly’s needs to unfurl its Opa.
108 Abendroth Ave
P. J. Correale is a seasoned veteran with more than four decades in the restaurant industry as an owner and chef.