57 Commack Rd. Commack, NY 631-858-1482
Gyros, seafood and other Souvlaki dishes.Hours: Breakfast, daily, 7 a.m. to noon; lunch, daily, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m., Sunday, 3 to 7 p.m. Reservations: Not Accepted
It's Monday night at Souvlaki Palace in Commack, and every booth, table and counter stool in the sliver of a restaurant is filled. Our party is probably the only group in the room not yet on a first-name basis with super-waitress Barbara Stathatos. She manages to chat up a steady stream of takeout customers while serving everyone seated in the multipurpose eatery. Early in the day, the place offers a menu of breakfast standards -- pancakes, omelets, Belgian waffles. At lunch or dinner, you can also get a burger or grilled chicken sandwich. Still, at its heart, Souvlaki Palace is a Greek restaurant. Dinner begins with a bowl of lively chickpea salad with warm pita. It's gratis, as is a glass of wine (diners are also free to bring their own bottles) and, later in the meal, dessert. Also part of the evening meal is a choice of soul-warming egg-lemon soup or a bright Greek salad made with feta, stuffed grape leaves and a lovely herb vinaigrette. I have been searching long and hard for a spot like this, a place to find exceptionally tender and smoky grilled octopus, which glistens with lemon and olive oil. It stands in sharp contrast to the uncharacteristically blah taramasalata (whipped roe dip), part of a "pikilia" combo that also features a respectable hummus, olives and hunks of feta. On one night, I was gratified to see a whole grilled red snapper on the specials board. Whole fish -- striped bass, porgy, branzino, flounder -- show up almost daily. It arrived crisp-skinned, impeccably fresh, redolent of lemon, garlic and the charcoal grill. Another specialty of chef Peter Mantalvanos is his house-made gyro, fashioned of spiced pork and lamb that's spit-roasted and sliced off in shards. Unlike the commercial, preformed gyro that's always available, this specialty is available only on days Mantalvanos feels will be busy. I had it as part of a platter that included juicy grilled chicken souvlaki, lamb shish kebab and loukaniko (spicy Greek sausage). "This could feed a family of four," remarked a friend, surveying her combination plate. On it was a slab of pastitsio (layered pasta, meat and bechamel), another of moussaka (a casserole of eggplant, potato, meat and bechamel), both of them lush and savory. There also was a rectangle of spinach pie, flaky on the outside, rich and verdant within. Ordinarily, I'm skeptical of pasta at Greek restaurants, but here, the pasta Kaminarata -- baked orzo with chunks of roasted lamb in wine and garlic sauce with tomatoes and cheese -- was convincingly Hellenic and surprisingly good. Roast chicken, a special one night, was an herb-crusted crisp-skinned half bird whose flavorsome interior spurted yellow juices when pierced with a fork. On all three visits, dinner concluded with a Greek dessert called ekmek, honey syrup-soaked shredded wheat crowned with clouds of freshly whipped cream. Made by the capable Barbara, it was truly delectable, eclipsing the fine galaktoboureko (pudding encased in phyllo). There's also baklava, kataifi (shredded wheat pastry) and rice pudding. We staggered out bearing enough leftovers for another substantial meal. Our tab for four, including tax and tip, came to around $80 -- the very definition of a dining deal.