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March 2012

Ever find yourself in a situation that you knew – just knew deep down inside – wasn’t going to have a very happy ending – and yet, despite all the foreboding telltale signs, you found it exceedingly difficult to extricate yourself from the inevitable consequences…? Well, that about sums up a recent visit to Estiatorio Rafina, the nearly two-year-old Greek entry in NYC’s Murray Hill restaurant sweepstakes.

Occupying the ground floor of a luxury high rise just across the street from where we were staying, Rafina’s exterior, replete with tables for al fresco dining, was impressive; the interior – boasting simple whitewashed walls, bright yellow napery, hardwood floors, and an attractive mezzanine bar bathed in soft blue lighting – was even more so. The restaurant’s website was inviting; reviews overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. Given its emphasis on simply grilled seafood, as well as Greek culinary classics, it seemed the perfect spot to enjoy a casually upscale dinner.

… But, right from the outset, things took a sour turn. When we settled in at the empty bar, I asked for a list of wines by the glass. Instead of simply supplying a wine list, the woman, who later turned out to be our server for the evening, inquired: “White or red?”

Since temperatures in the Big Apple had hovered around 80 degrees this particular late March day, and matters piscatorial were at the top our dining agenda, “White,” I replied.

Still, no list was forthcoming and she began rattling off a catalog of possibilities, sans producers, none of which sounded indigenous to the restaurant’s culinary origins. “You do have Greek wine?” I pursued

“Of course,” she answered with just the slightest patronizing lilt.

“Dry,” I specified.

“Dry,” she repeated, with a touch more la-dee-da; and then proceeded to go on a hunting expedition in the fridge, eventually coming up with a Kouros, a reliable Greek producer.

“Fine,” I said after sampling a pour.

But how utterly bizarre – and aggravating. Why not just hand over the wine list, which a restaurant of this caliber surely possessed, and which certainly would include wines available by the glass, and let the customer decide for him/herself? Why the necessity of going through all these unnecessary mental and semantic gyrations…? Hell, you tell me.

Well, since we were – at long last – sipping our preprandial libations in peace, my wife, who has an uncanny nose for sniffing out dirt in any form, began to notice certain anomalies in the otherwise tastefully appointed interior: The large plate glass windows fronting First Avenue were significantly smudged, she noted; a pile of junk that should have been stored behind closed doors was stashed in a far corner; three high rise chairs consorted together, bereft of a high top table; a number of dining tables were properly set, but others were incongruously bare; and, over at the far end of the bar, behind a pile of dishwasher baskets, the female bartender was munching away on dinner. It just gave the impression of a room that had been surprised by unexpected visitors.

But the real surprise came when we decided to settle up and be seated at table in the downstairs dining area. I asked for the check and laid my Amex card on the bar. The bartender took a look and informed me: “We only accept credit card charges for $20.00 or more… and your bill is $17.00.”

“You’re kidding,” I mumbled, absolutely dumbfounded. You might expect this in some scruffy little Chinese takeout joint – where at least they have the courtesy to post a sign notifying you in advance of their policy – but not in an upscale restaurant in the heart of Manhattan. Not particularly customer friendly, to say the least. And, in point of fact, in all my years as a food writer/restaurant critic, this is the first time I have ever encountered this kind of petty petulance in any dining den more illustrious than a traveling taco stand.

And, as most people are aware, it’s not simply that something is said; rather, it is the way in which it is said that carries the weight. And the bartender’s manner was nearly identical to that of the woman who, for whatever reason, felt the need to go mano a mano over a simple matter of asking to see a wine list. It made no apparent sense… but it reeked, positively reeked, unaccountably, of attitude… an attitude that could only be described, however oxymoronically, as “defensively condescending.” An attitude that persisted, I might add, throughout our stay.

>But the real kicker was yet to come. The bartender picked up the twenty I had placed on the bar and asked with an absolutely straight face: “Do you want your change?”

It was at this point that we seriously considered leaving. But several things stood in our way. It had been a busy day, we were both tired, and we didn’t feel like hoofing it several blocks or hopping in a cab in the, perhaps, vain hope of securing a table without benefit of reservation. Between a rock and a hard place, we decided to stay, hoping that the cuisine, which had received pretty high marks from various sources, would make up for the service.

Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. The traditional Greek salad – romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, olives, and peppers – was the best part of our meal, but it was on the dry side and needed infinitely more dressing to rouse the taste buds.

One of the things that originally attracted us to Rafina was the variety of grilled finny fare on the menu. But this, too, proved a disappointment. My wife’s filet of sole was decidedly fishy; and my swordfish steak, while not as fishy, still struck me as somewhat less than at the peak of good health; and it was definitely overcooked. In addition, the Greek restaurants I’ve frequented over the years, adorn matters piscatorial with simple splashes of olive oil and lemon… but the lemon-herb sauce proffered here imbued both entrées with a rather odd taste.

Part of the problem seems to be that the restaurant simply isn’t doing a sufficient amount of business to prompt an expeditious turnover of comestibles. On the Thursday evening of our visit, for example, apart from a special party of 18 from the nearby NYU Medical Center, the restaurant was nearly empty. There was no one at the bar, only two other small parties of two & three, respectively, were in the dining area and, perhaps, two additional patrons dining al fresco. The result, in my opinion, is that highly perishable seafood spends entirely too much time loitering in the kitchen before it is prepared for consumption

Another indication that all was not as it should have been was the condition of the restrooms. My wife reported that the ladies’ room was significantly less than pristine. Pieces of paper towel were scattered on the floor, there were also conspicuous stains on the floor beneath the sink, and a generally unpleasant aroma wafted from the nether regions. The men’s room was in a similar condition. I accidentally rested my hand on a ledge that ran the length of the room, and my palm emerged black with dirt… And I don’t mean a bit of dust. No, this was obviously an area that had never been cleaned. This was nearly two years worth of filth that had undoubtedly been accumulating since the restaurant opened its doors.

In conjunction with the above, several things come to mind. This early in the evening, the restrooms should have been spotless in preparation for the dinner hour – they were not. Secondly, if areas of the restaurant that are open to the public eye are in such a deplorable condition, it is only natural for patrons to have second thoughts with regard to the cleanliness of those areas that are behind closed doors – namely, the kitchen. Finally, not only must guests put up with these less than sparkling facilities – and I have quite a number of friends who check the restrooms before even being seated; and, if they are not up to snuff, will not remain to dine – but keep in mind that the employees who handle your food are using them as well… Not a pleasant thought.

When I brought these concerns to the owner’s attention, however, he seemed not at all concerned with the state of the restrooms… As a matter of fact, he became downright hostile, accusing me of having an antagonistic attitude from the moment I walked through the door – which is certainly the most absurd bit of psychological transference that I have ever witnessed. As I noted at the outset, my wife and I love Greek food and were exceedingly enthusiastic – for a number of previously stated reasons – about dining here.

Unfortunately, early in the evening, the owner had happened by at a most inopportune moment, just as I was attempting to surreptitiously snap a digital photo of the food. This, undoubtedly, set off a host of negative blips on his radar screen, alerting him to the fact that I was probably some kind of lowlife restaurant reviewer about to upset his little culinary kingdom; which, I have no doubt, contributed to his not inconsiderable wrath.

Needless to say, we exited the restaurant as quickly as possible… But the owner wasn’t content to leave matters there. He followed us out onto the sidewalk, still ranting and raving. His parting words to me: “I don’t care if you’re from the f***ing New York Times!”

In retrospect, juxtaposing his ill-disposed demeanor, the questionable quality of the cuisine, and the sparsely populated dining room, I can easily understand why Rafina’s patrons are apparently becoming an endangered species.

A paraphrase of that grand old quote from the film Casablanca comes immediately to mind: “How extravagant you are throwing away customers that way… someday they may be scarce.”

Bon Appétit!
The Artful Diner

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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