TYPE: Rustic Greek cuisine
Chef-owner Michael Psilakis has reinvented his modern Greek restaurant, Onera, transforming it into a peasant-style Greek. Perhaps, the Upper West Side wasn’t the most ideal neighborhood to introduce definitively ambitious, upscale Greek fare. While most restaurants opt for extravagant facelifts, Psilakis has appropriately given the space a make under, renaming it Kefi. Having stripped the subterranean spot of its upscale accoutrements, he’s reconceived it as a casual neighborhood restaurant for Greek home-cooking. Gone are the white linens and offal tasting menus, replaced by butcher block tabletops and family-style dishes. Instead of chandeliers, undulating waves of blue & white fabric now hang from the ceiling, evoking a beachy vibe.
After the sudden closing of Dona, where Psilakis had ventured into southern-European fare and successfully established himself as a chef to be reckoned with, he now seems to be retracing his roots back to his childhood in Greece. Michael himself asserts, “Kefi is my mother’s cooking.” The menu is a petite & simple selection of traditional peasant dishes: lamb souvlaki, mousaka, crispy calamari and meatball soup.
Already buzzing with a local, low-key crowd, I grabbed a table in the slightly cramped, but quaint dining room and headed straight for the wine menu, which is exclusively Greek and unusually poetic. One might think that descriptions like, “its rich bouquet unfolds with dried figs and prunes, and a whiff of pepper and vanilla,” are out of place on a wine menu at a family-style restaurant, but the prices aren’t – most wines by the glass don’t exceed $8, a steal in NYC, but potentially god awful. Thankfully, there weren’t. I chose an Athiri ($6), a lovely, floral glass of white that drank a little too well.
Let’s get down to the food – the openers included a classic meze of the cuttlefish, feta and octopus sorts. There are homey meatballs washed in a pleasing tomato sauce, specked with whole garlics and olives. Even the warm feta with pita, tossed with fresh onions, tomatoes, & salty anchovies, is a simple, but gratifying appetizer. But the best of all, was a sublimely tender and sweet grilled octopus, lifted by lemon, fresh onions, parsley and bright tomatoes, all perched on a springy, chickpea & black eyed pea salad. Unfortunately, the manouri cheese & spinach-stuffed cuttlefish, still managed to be bland, further hurt by a mushy tomato pedestal.
I didn’t know the Greeks had such a way with pasta, but Michael opened my eyes with celestial ribbons of flat egg pasta, tangled around succulent shreds of rabbit meat, sweet caramelized onions and nutty nuggets of graviera cheese. It almost seemed wrong that such a blissfully rabbit-rich pasta dish, rivalling some of the best in the city, cost only $10.95, but who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth? Delicate, sheep’s milk cheese-stuffed raviolis, topped with crunchy fried onions, were lightly brushed with a brown butter & sage sauce.
As far as entrees go, I’d head for the grilled hanger steak: juicy and supple, the sliced meat was generously topped with sauteed onions & sea salt, cleverly paired with melting nibbles of haloumi cheese and warm lentils. The shrimp & scallop souvlaki was predictable and not worth investigating, in light of all the other satisfying dishes to be had at Kefi. I finished with a deconstructed halva dessert, light & airy chocolate mousse, doused with a tahini sauce, and accompanied by crushed sesame seeds.
While Kefi seems like any other neighborhood eatery, rustic Greek has been elevated to a savory plane at Kefi. It may be back to basics for Michael Psilakis, but he more than does justice to earthy Greek fare on the Upper West Side. While this spot is realistically limited by its Upper West Side location, the imminent opening of Anthos, a modern Greek restaurant set to open midtown (in the Acqua Pazza space), will likely whisk him back into New York City’s limelight. Who knows – Psilakis might just do for Greek cuisine what Batali did for Italian.
Until we eat again,
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