My father moved to Long Island a year ago and, since then, he has pestered me repeatedly with one restaurant request: “Can we go to a place that has a nice piece of fresh fish?”
Having known him for many decades, I understand that “nice piece of fresh fish” is code. What he is looking for is a large variety of fish — not a choice between farmed salmon and farmed branzino. Fancy plating leaves him cold. He does not want a fillet of anything served on a bed of truffled lentils, napped with a cilantro aioli. (And I don’t look forward to negotiating with the waiter when the menu lists such artfully conceived preparations.)
There are a handful of old reliable fish houses that meet his criteria, but not a lot of new ones pop up among the burger joints and trattorias. But Dad got lucky this year: On his birthday last month I took him to three-month-old Vilai in Glen Cove. This is a Greek fish restaurant in the mold of Kyma and Limani in Roslyn, but the prices are anywhere from 10 to 20 percent less than either.
We ordered a whole grilled red snapper for two (for $58) and it was perfect, just the right amount of char on the crisp skin, the snow-white meat still moist. Its face was decorously obscured by some strategically placed greens and it came with nothing more than lemon wedges and good olive oil. I’m pretty sure I know what Dad was thinking as he ate his fish and sipped his glass of dry white moschofilero: “Finally, my kid comes up with a restaurant I like.”
Red snapper is one of five whole fishes always available at Vilai; the others are black sea bass, Mediterranean fagri, Dover sole (tremendous, the night I had it) and lavraki, aka branzino. All but the last two are meant for two diners. Whole fish lovers: Your ship has come in.
Whole fish avoiders: Vilai is still a good bet. There are plenty of seafood dishes that don’t require you to confront a whole creature: salmon with baby spinach and chickpeas, a casserole (plaki) of Chilean sea bass with tomatoes. I was let down by the casserole of seafood cooked with orzo: the clams were full of flavor and the shrimp were big and meaty but the lobster was overcooked, the mussels, scrawny, the scallops, rubbery.
Back on land, the lamb rib chops were perfumed with garlic and rosemary and, even ordered medium, they were juicy. Roast chicken was upstaged by the accompanying lemon potatoes.
Some of the menu’s highlights are appetizers and side dishes. Chef George Triantopoulos has a gift for Greece’s homey yiayia (grandmother) repertoire. The gemista is a fat baked tomato bursting with herbed rice. Fasolakia are green beans and potatoes baked in sweet tomato sauce. The best non-fish thing I ate at Vilai was the moussaka: a cinnamon-scented ragout of beef and eggplant that was topped with a thick layer of béchamel sauce before being baked. This appetizer was billed as “petit mousaka” but, for only $9, it could also work as a main, preceded, perhaps, by one of Vilai’s generous salads. As in Greece, the “Greek salad” contained no lettuce, only ripe tomatoes, sliced Persian cucumbers, olives, sliced onion and a big raft of feta cheese.
I wish Vilai’s desserts had more of that homey touch. All were plated prettily, but neither the dense baklava, the yogurt flan nor the galaktoboureko (custard wrapped in phyllo) evinced much soul. To cap his birthday meal, Dad ordered ice cream, and both the chocolate and the pistachio were creamy and intense — and ably supported a candle.
This spot set back from Glen Street has not been kind to restaurants since Epiphany closed here in 2011. It was followed by Tappo, Chama Rodizio and, most recently, by Greek Captain, a shaky proposition that lasted six months. Vilai’s owner and general manager, Petros Charamis, transformed the rather unremarkable space into a sleek, bright venue, mostly white but with accents of bleached wood and light fixtures made from nautical ropes. (“Vilai” is Greek for heaving line.) Petros is a constant presence at the restaurant and I’m hoping his ministrations prove successful. So does my dad.