Floundering economy. Mounting debt. Failing government. Violent riots. Why would one wish to talk about such terrible concepts when there is arni youvetsi to discuss? I have always lived, breathed and most importantly eaten Greek. A messily packed gyro always does the trick for lunch. But there are also rich dishes like the classic horiatiki salad and saganaki, fried kefalograviera cheese. There are mezedes (that’s Greek for “appetizers,” you newbs) and the heavy hitters: plates of whole fish and meats, most notably, lamb.
Many of my earliest memories over summers in Greece involve extended family crowded around each other, picking with their hands at an entire lamb wrapped over a spit. Exit: Mary Had A Little Lamb. Enter: The Embiricos’ Have A Whole Fucking Roasted Lamb. Think back to any scene with food in the surprisingly accurate My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Did my aunt Voula chase me around the house trying to get me to eat the lamb’s brain, you ask? No, she did not. My aunt’s name is Maria and yes she did.
New York is home to the largest state population of Greeks in the U.S, with over 150,000 of its residents claiming ancestry (who wouldn’t want to claim Greek ancestry? Psh.) Many immigrants settled in Astoria, Queens — an overwhelmingly Greek neighborhood that I will cover in an upcoming “taverna” guide. While Manhattan may not share Astoria’s level of Hellenic pride, it is home to some fine Greek dining. Here are my picks for the borough’s top eight establishments.
(Key: $ – Cheap, $$ – Moderate, $$$ – Expensive , $$$$ – Very Expensive)
There is nowhere better to experience authentic Greek cuisine than at Milos, perhaps more aptly described as “Aphrodite’s Palace.” The sprawling two-floored digs that house Greek antiques and stylish private rooms are packed daily for lunch and dinner, with “trendy” and “loud” qualifying as understatements of the century. The selection of fresh fish is extensive — as is custom in Greece, diners are encouraged to personally select their fish from a display on ice. While you might suffer from a severe case of sticker shock after glancing at the per-pound costs (the restaurant’s website doesn’t even list their dinner menu prices), many offerings are well worth the subsequent hole in the wallet. At $33.50, The Milos Special makes a strong case for winning a most outrageously priced appetizer category. But the paper-thin zucchini and eggplant chips, surrounding a generous dollop of homemade tzatziki, are a perfectly crisp and savory treat and a must to share. The daily lunch and pre/post theater menus are also relative bargains. $$$$, 125 West 55th Street, 212-245-7400, milos.ca
We have already documented Executive Chef Jim Botsacos’s love of Greek yogurt. Today, we recognize his kitchen prowess, which has catapulted Molyvos to one of the most renowned Greek spots in the city since its opening in 1997. The festive atmosphere complements a showcase of different fish from the Mediterranean, priced by the pound. Molyvos separates itself from its counterparts by offering different menus throughout the day, including a “quick lunch” option and a daily “café menu” from 3-5 p.m. with smaller bites. Botsacos uses yogurt, a refreshing change of pace, in the béchamel sauce for the moussaka, a traditional eggplant and lamb-based dish (see the recipe). Molyvos also serves brunch, a term somewhat unfamiliar to Greeks, on weekends. Selections include conventional brunch items with lesser-known Greek ingredients like tsoureki and bougatsa, a crispy semolina pastry. $$$, 871 Seventh Avenue, 212-582-7500, molyvos.com
This Upper East Side newcomer may not singlehandedly quiet cynics of the area’s dining scene. There is, however, no argument that the food at Yefsi is just as sophisticated as that at the city’s most heralded spots, while also being significantly more affordable. The art deco interior strikes a fine balance between casual and chic, and the menu consists primarily of mezedes. There are worthwhile classics like saganaki and gigantes (giant Greek lima beans baked in fresh tomato sauce and fresh dill), as well as more unconventional items. The oven-baked feta cheese comes out melted over eggplant puree, tomato and a balsamic glaze, which provides an ideal level of acidity. Be sure to brush up on your language skills before heading there – we ordered in Greek and were rewarded with free shots of ouzo. OPA! $$, 1481 York Avenue, 212-535-0293, yefsiestiatorio.com
The secret to cooking fish in Greece is simplicity: the best of local fish is chargrilled and dressed with only lemon and olive oil. These fish can be found at Avra, a Hellenic oasis located in the heart of busy Midtown, where dressed-up businessmen flock to woo clients. With “simply the best fish” printed on their menus, the restaurant imports many of the day’s catches from abroad, including Mediterranean specialties such as barbounia (red mullet) and fagri (red porgy).
Be sure to ask for an outdoor table, weather permitting, nestled within a neatly flowered exterior. A unique aspect of Avra is a raw bar that has clams and oysters, terms that would undoubtedly lead to some perplexed looks from Greeks. These features do not take away from the restaurant’s authenticity, however, and groups should order entire raw platters while also opting for the pikilia, which provides the opportunity to sample an array of everyone’s favorite Greek spreads, including tzatziki sauce and taramosalata. $$$, 141 East 48th Street, 212-759-8550, avrany.com
We all know that the Greeks invented each and every one of the world’s useful products dating back centuries (insert witty retort about the current state of the country’s government). The cuisine, however, was relatively unknown to the world until somewhat recently. No list of quality Greek restaurants in New York would be complete without the inclusion of the place that started it all. Opened in 1987 by Nicola Kotsoni and Steve Tzolis, Periyali is credited with finally putting Greek cuisine on the map. More than 20 years after it first opened, the unassuming Greenwich Village staple still doles out some of the city’s freshest dishes. The extensive menu includes everyday favorites like avgolemono (chicken soup with egg and lemon) and grilled chicken souvlaki over vegetable couscous. There is a reasonably priced dinner prix-fixe menu, a rarity at the city’s top Greek joints, along with a wine list comprising several bottles from the home country. $$$, 35 West 20th Street, 212-463-7890, periyali.com
If you cannot find your way to the beautiful island of Santorini, consider this expansive Tribeca location the next best thing. With endless sets of tables scatted throughout an intricate and maze-like setting, Thalassa pays homage to an underappreciated Greek wine scene with a diverse selection of local bottles, accompanied by a helpful flavor guide. The menu is heavily seafood-focused (“thalassa,” after all, means “sea”). While years of unsolicited advice from family has taught me to order fish found in the Mediterranean Sea at Greek restaurants, the diver scallops from Maine are too tender to pass up. Their ketaifi filo wrapping would surely justify the order in my family’s eyes. Unsure what that means? See, everything really is Greek! $$$, 179 Franklin Street, 212-941-7661, thalassanyc.com
Well-known consulting chef Diane Kochilas and manager Christos Valtzoglou teamed up to bring “rustic Greek home cooking” to the East Village in 2003. In addition to traditional starters and meats found at most of these venues, Pylos also serves up Hellenic “comfort food.” The pastitsio, a terrine of baked pasta with meat sauce, comes out piping hot and is richly lathered in béchamel. For you Greeks out there: think back to dinner at Yiayia’s. At a young age, my uncle taught me how to catch an octopus and subsequently smash it on a rock no less than 40 times to “ensure tenderness.” Say what you may about the humanness of such a practice, but it remains the best “htapothi” I have had to date. This grilled dish here, however, prepared with a balsamic reduction, gives my ill-fated octopi a serious run for their money. Though it may not be for another six months, mark your calendars for the restaurant’s annual midnight meal on Greek Easter. $$, 128 East 7th Street, 212-473-0220, pylosrestaurant.com
“Everyone has a Michael Psilakis story,” was the sentiment echoed throughout the office as I worked on cutting down this list. The acclaimed chef brings several of his own childhood favorites to the Upper West Side, and there is a special kid’s menu that ensures the little ones will grow up eating properly (a.k.a. Greek). Kefi relocated slightly further uptown a few years back and utilizes classic Greek décor: Think blue window panes and plates hung on white walls. No trip to the restaurant would be complete without an order of tsoutsoukakia, which are made with roasted garlic, olives and tomatoes, and were voted the city’s best meatballs by New York magazine. $, 505 Columbus Avenue, 212-873-0200, kefirestaurant.com
Honorable Mentions: Kellari Taverna (and Kellari Parea), Ammos, Ethos, Boukies.
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