New York is a city that’s absolutely packed with the world’s finest foods. Blowfish and uni are never far away. Truffles have become an all-seasons upcharge. The Cronut was invented in Soho. But this week, one particular delicacy arrived that is rare even in its home country. Nicholas Poulmentis, the Greek chef at Astoria’s Oli.Vine, has acquired some bottles of spinialo, a potent, pickled seafood specialty from the island of Kalymnos and Poulmentis’s native Kythira.
Spinialo starts with fouskes — oyster-ish creatures also called “sea figs” or “sea squirts” — that are pickled in a mixture of seawater, olive oil, and lemon juice. The result, historically, was a source of protein on long lonely trips by Greek fishermen of yore, but now the chef speaks about it as if it is the national dish of Atlantis. “It’s a powerful aphrodisiac,” he cheers. “One bite will give strange powers to anyone.” He adds, “This is the raw power of the sea since ancient days.”
Big talk — but does this particular delicacy live up to the hype, or is this simply salesman schtick from a chef who needs to move some pickled seafood? The flavor is indeed powerful, almost vinegary with the distinct brawn of umami. The flesh is not tough, exactly, but it offers some resistance. On the plate, they look like thick, yellow zucchini blossoms. They have a smoky salinity like ham. Andrew Doro, a particularly adventurous food lover who’s sampled foods from 141 different countries within the five boroughs, says they’re “Complicated, satisfying, weirdly refreshing — definitely worth the trip.”
Poulmentis says it took him seven years for him to track down a supply. Now, he has enough for 40 orders, which he’ll sell off-menu, for $55 each, until he runs out. (He’s hoping to score more, but doesn’t know when, or if, that will happen.) “The taste takes me to when I was 10,” Poulmentis says. “My first dive.”