After Decades in the Diner Underworld, Greek Chefs Cook Foods Fit for the Gods

Gotham’s Greek dining diaspora now embraces all styles

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

In Manhattan, eating Greek has long meant an unremarkable feta omelet ordered from a lengthy, laminated menu and consumed while ensconced in a vinyl booth. But in recent years, the term has gone from diner to fine dining, as serious chefs have offered Manhattanites rustic and refined tastes more fitting for a culture credited with inventing democracy, literature and civilization.

Diane Kochilas says it’s been a long time coming. The world- renowned Greek-food authority—who was born in New York but whose goddess-looks reveal her Hellenic genes—divides her time between her two homelands: she’s the most feared and ferocious restaurant critic in Athens and runs a seasonal restaurant and cooking school on the eastern Aegean island of Ikaria, but spends the rest of the year here, as a writer and also at Pylos restaurant in the East Village, where she advises on the lush lemony avgolemono soup and helps to hone the honey-braised lamb shank.

“Greek [immigrants to New York] went into the restaurant in- dustry pretty early on,” says Kochilas. “Most started out washing dishes. But Greeks are an individualistic culture and the restaurant business is the ultimate individualistic business.” The first major waves of Greek immigration to the U.S. began in the 1880s, with many putting down roots in New York. Not a few found work in the kitchens of New York City canteens, both high and low. In the years following World War II, Greek-Amercans came to dominate the diner industry here. They also owned luncheonettes, pizzerias, bakeries, coffee distributors and whole- salers. By the 1970s and ’80s several celebrated city restaurants were Greek-owned, including the Coach House, the Gloucester House and Il Cantinori. But they didn’t serve Greek food. Real Hellenic fare could be found only in a few small neigh- borhood spots focusing on traditional dishes like moussaka, with its creamy layers of eggplant and spiced meat, or skewers of flame- kissed souvlaki, but if the flavors were unfashionable, the real bar- rier was the unfamiliar alphabet.

There’s a reason “It’s Greek to me” became a way of calling something completely indecipherable. Even with a Romanized alphabet, Americans perusing a menu are unlikely to interpret krasata paidakia as savory short ribs, htapothi xythato as marinated octopus or kotopoulo psito as that least threatening of dishes, roast chicken. Even adventuresome eaters tended to stick to a few dishes like mous- saka, souvlaki and horiatiki, the last of which gained naturalized citizenship as the olive-studded Greek salad. These dishes offered both authenticity and accessibility: easy for Americans to wrap their tongues around, both linguistically and literally.

Still it would take decades for Greek food to join the New York culinary pantheon. In a way, the ghetto-to-gastro trail was blazed by the food of another immigrant group: Italians.

Chef Michael Psilakis, the Adonis of Greek food in New York, says he drew inspiration from Italian chefs, whose cuisine not only shares the emphasis on simple preparations of quality ingredients, but also once faced the same battle of perceptions. In an age when critics debate whether Maialino is “Roman enough,” it’s easy to forget that just a few decades ago pesto was considered exotic, and spaghetti was about as common in fine restaurants as corn dogs. “For years Italian food in the U.S. was defined by pizza and red-sauce restaurants,” says Psilakis of what he sees as a precedent progression. “But then you had chefs cooking regional Italian cuisine that was so much more.” As impassioned cooks won Florentine, Apulian and Piedmontese cuisine a place at the table, Italian fare became both hot and haute. Now we’re smug about having tasted Michael White’s wine-glazed ravioli.

Recently feta has followed in the foodie footsteps of Pecorino, and other high-quality Greek ingredients, from unctuous olive oil to luscious yogurt, have helped win converts to Greek cuisine—as balsamic vinegar and sun-dried tomatoes did for Italian food 25 years ago.

One of New York’s first upscale Greek restaurants sprang from a celebrated Italian restaurant. At Il Cantinori, whose 1983 opening helped ignite the Italian food revolution in New York, a Tuscan named Pino Luongo was in the kitchen, but his partners, Steve Tsolis and Nicola Kotsoni, were Greek. Friends and customers began to pester them about opening a Greek restaurant, and in 1987 they did just that: Periyali—Greek for “seashore”—with brightly white- washed walls and authentic tiled accents in the Flatiron district, delighted diners with adaptations of traditional Greek dishes like ten- der tomato-stewed rabbit and oregano-infused baked striped bass.

Periyali earned a three-star review from the New York Times, paving the way for haute tavernas: Milos, which hooked Manhattan on Greece’s simple grilled fish, and Molyvos, which interpreted the ancient cuisine for contemporary tastes.

Chef Jim Botsacos has helmed the kitchen of Midtown’s Molyvos since opening day in 1997 and calls his food “new Greek cuisine.” “Part of what I do is very traditional,” he says, “like trying to re-create a string bean stew that I had as a child.” Classics like moussaka, octopus marinated in red wine, and, yes, souvlaki are all on his menu. (“Every time I try to take it off, there are protests,” he chuckles.)

But he’s no classics major—far from it. “I spend a lot of time try- ing to Greekify things that are not traditional.” Take the seemingly über-American strawberry shortcake on his menu. “I love in-season strawberries, and the traditional Greek way to prepare them would be to make them into a spoon sweet”—an intensely sweet fruit preserve usually eaten straight off a spoon with a chaser of ice water to temper the sugar rush. He sticks to neither chorus, instead tossing the straw- berries in an assyrtiko dessert wine and serving them with a lemon yogurt pound cake and almond milk. “These are all Greek flavors,” he says, “but you would never find the dish in a taverna.”

“I stand on the shoulders of those three,” says Psilakis of Periyali, Milos and Molyvos. “What I wanted to do when I came to Manhattan was to show that Greek food was more than souvlaki, to show the critical world that Greek food was worthy of the word ‘cuisine.’”

In 2007, Psilakis achieved that goal when he became one of the few Michelin-starred chefs in the world for his cooking at Midtown’s opulent Anthos. His somewhat cerebral interpretations included slivers of tuna slicked with lemon and a piney mastic oil—a resin from a tree native to the island of Chios—and a succulent crab topped with a less-than-traditional tzatziki of yogurt, cucumbers and sea urchin.

Today Psilakis cooks the meze and crispy cod of his childhood on the Upper West Side at the rustic and cozy Kefi, which he opened with Donatella Arpaia nearly simultaneously with Anthos, and serves up inspired seafood like sea urchin crudo at nearby Fishtag.

“For me Greek food is about my mother, my grandmother, interpreting our heritage,” says Psilakis. He cites his tsoutsoukakia—“a simple meatball,” but while the lamb-beef-pork balls have fed his countrymen for centuries, his interpretation is significantly more cheffy with olives, green onions and soft, sweet, garlic confit. “It’s a conceptualized identity,” he explains. “It’s not strictly traditional because we are infusing it with our own soul.”

Scott Hocker, editor-in-chief of TastingTable.com, recently relocated from California for the job and counts such fare among the benefits. “When I lived in San Francisco,” he says, “I would daydream about the Greek food [here]. New York always felt like the epicenter of Greek dining. When I finally dined at Pylos a few months ago, the food was as good as I imagined: was permeated with a sense of place and history, but it also unabashedly embraced New York as an influence. And it wasn’t slavishly obsessed with the thorny idea of the ‘authentic.’”

Gotham’s Greek dining diaspora now embraces all styles, from haute rustic to cerebral, and for some chefs, what’s (millennia) old is new again. The next age of haute Hellenic dining begins this fall with Maria Loi, who has been making the rounds of foodie events like the James Beard Foundation’s Chefs and Champagne in the Hamptons and Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation. Known as the Martha Stewart of Greece—with the television show, magazine, cookbooks and home dinnerware lines, as well as a restaurant in Nafpaktos—she brings her celebrated herb-inflected fare to the Upper West Side with a restaurant called simply Loi. Writing the book Ancient Dining for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games gave Loi a chance to research centuries of Greek cuisine going all the way back to Hippocrates.

“It’s so healthy. You have all of these herbs, which give antioxidants—sage, parsley, fennel, oregano and crocus, Greek saffron. Did you know that if you eat an orange with parsley it is more beneficial?” she says with delight. Loi is particularly excited about bringing the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet—high in healthy plant foods and monounsaturated fats—to the American public. Even the sweets she serves will be made with olive oil in- stead of butter. She plans several restaurants to follow Loi’s opening this fall. Details are still being worked out, but she is sure of one thing: No souvlaki will be served.

 

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Lisa McLaughlin writes about food, drink and cultural trends for Time magazine when she isn't busy trying to figure out how to grow hops on her windowsill.