LESS IS MORE: At Milos, the menu focuses on simply prepared seafood.
REBUILT: Michael Psilakis does deconstructed Greek.
SUN-SOAKED: The bright, airy interior at Zaytinya is a perfect backdrop for the Mediterranean-style menu, featuring Avgotaraho (cured grey mullet roe), below, and mushrooms Avgolemono, 2nd below.
FRESH, CLEAN, FUN: Sea urchin with buratta, caviar and fava bean puree (above) is a typical starter for Michael Psilakis.
SAMPLER: At Kyma, above, two popular tasting menus make Greek cuisine more approachable to the uninitiated.
Among the great ethnic cuisines immigrants have introduced to the U.S. melting pot palate over time, Greek food arguably qualifies as the poor stepchild. People either have scant experience with it—limited to the gyros and baklava at the greasy spoon or a few forkfuls of spanakopita from the office potluck buffet—or simply are intimidated by all the tonguetwisting names or unfamiliar tastes they associate with Greek cuisine.
But that is slowly changing, and this classic genre, with its focus on fresh ingredients and simple preparations, conveniently dovetails with the growing demand for fresh, simply prepared and healthier fare.
Costas Spiliadis was one of the first to recognize the dearth of respectable Greek food in this country. Disappointed at the Greek diner cliche, the Greek-born, self-taught chef opened Estiatorio Milos in New York City 10 years ago with the notion of showcasing genuine home-style Greek cooking.
"I've tried to restore a damaged image of a cuisine that was really always misrepresented outside of Greece," says Spiliadis, who also runs Milos clones in Montreal and Athens, Greece. Even in Greece, he says, foodservice has evolved to accommodate the demands of tourists, which has resulted in a dumbed-down, cheapened cuisine. That diluted version migrated to other parts of the world, including the U.S., where by virtue of sheer volume it came to be known as the norm.
A more authentic Greek tradition has been bubbling to the surface in recent years, thanks to two things: better availability of Greek ingredients, spurred in part by the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and a commitment by Spiliadis and others to some level of authenticity. From San Francisco's Kokkari Estiatorio to Atlanta's Kyma and New York's Anthos, creative chefs are figuring out ways to raise the profile and the appeal of Greek food well beyond its humble reputation.
Spiliadis' approach is to duplicate the experience of dining in a Greek home. He does so by focusing on what he considers the core values of true Greek food: superior quality ingredients, simple preparations and a sense of real hospitality. His restaurants sport in-your-face displays of seafood, much of it flown in daily from Greece, displayed market-style; patrons are encouraged to make a selection, much as they might choose from the ocean's bounty at an open-air market in the Greek Isles, and observe it being simply grilled in the open kitchen. The yogurt is made from goat's milk at a family-owned farm 100 miles west of Montreal. Honey is imported from the small island of Kythira in the Aegean Sea, where the bees consume only wild thyme flowers. And the extra-virgin olive oil is pure Greek. Fresh Greek oregano and other produce comes from organic farms.
This is not fussed-over fare. As the description of Milos' menu explains, "The idea is perfect simplicity, to preserve each ingredient's distinct flavor and nutritional value. Why interfere with what nature has already mastered?"
Product, Product, Product
That approach is at the very heart of Greek cuisine. Spiliadis calls it "the supremacy of the ingredients—it's paramount." A French chef, he observes, can hide behind just-okay product using a complex sauce, but Greek chefs have no such tricks available to them.
"We try to be very honest about our ingredients," says Jose Andres, whose Zaytinya in Washington, DC presents a Mediterranean menu heavy with Greek influences. And in using those ingredients, his kitchen often improves upon the traditional recipe. Except for the occasional grumbling purist Greek guest, "everyone loves our tzatziki," he says. The classic recipe calls for marinating cucumber in yogurt for a few hours, then adding dill; at Zaytinya, ingredients are mixed at the last minute for a crunchy, aromatic result.
Johnny Monis, chef/owner of Washington, DC's highly regarded Greek-inspired Komi, looks at tzatziki yet another way: He combines the base, yogurt, with white or black truffles and heirloom beets. His take on a gyro involves patties of braised oxtail fried until crispy and served on house-made pita with the aforementioned tzatziki. "All the ingredients are pretty much the same, but they're elevated a little," he says. "We hold true to the integrity of the dish."
Similarly, Pano I. Karotassos, executive chef at Kyma in Atlanta, has opted to respect the traditional Greek recipes, but update them to match his sophisticated clientele. Mainly, that involves lightening things up a little, but sometimes it spills over into presentation. For instance, octopus, which happens to be the top seller at Kyma, is served grilled to order, then sliced instead of presented in the traditional manner, tentacles intact.
He may be willing to tweak a traditional dish to make it more restaurant-friendly, but Karotassos frowns at the ham-handed interpretations of Greek food he sees turning up in some places, especially pan-Mediterranean restaurants. "Taking yogurt, putting spices in it and smearing it on a plate is not Greek—you will not find that anywhere in Greece."
Then, on the other hand, you have Michael Psilakis, an RH Rising Star and former chef at New York City's now-shuttered Dona. He believes the time is right to push Greek to the next level, and he's taking the lead at Anthos, his splashy new digs opening in midtown Manhattan this spring. Psilakis gave New York diners a hint of what he meant at Onera, where a $75 tasting menu offered such fare as sheep and goat cheese raviolo with crispy shallots, saffron jus and shaved Mizithra cheese along with braised pork belly with fennel and watercress "salad," potato, lemon and roasted garlic veloute.
Eventually, Psilakis realized that Onera's space was too small for him to truly flex his creative muscle, so he transformed Onera into Kefi, a rustic regional Greek eatery, and is moving the Onera vibe midtown to Anthos, where in the larger space nothing will hold him back.
Psilakas' approach involves capturing the essence of Greek food, but turning it inside out: He creates something that you would be hard pressed to find on a menu or in a home in Greece yet is undeniably Greek in character. "We focus on the texture and flavors and ingredients of Greek food, and we take those things and create things that you have never seen before," he explains. "Someone who knows Greek food and closes his eyes and tastes this will say, ‘this is Greek food.'"
It's All Greek to Them
For those who might not be able to identify Greek food with their eyes closed, creative chefs have found ways to make it more approachable. At Kyma, all the appetizers and entrees are available as a $30 small-plates tasting menu. It allows newbies to choose some less-familiar tastes without committing their whole meal to something they might not like. For an extra charge, they can include a whole grilled fish, one of the restaurant's signature dishes. For those willing to go one step further, a 15- to 18-course $85 tasting menu is not only popular among guests but a hit among the chefs, who have fun putting it together.
Sometimes language is a barrier. Michael Symon, chef/owner of two Greek restaurants—Parea, which opened to solid reviews in New York last year, and Lolita, in Cleveland—along with the acclaimed Lola in Cleveland, says he won't put toughto-decipher Greek terms on the menu. "If I was going to put cheese pies on the menu, I probably wouldn't write tyropitakia. I would describe the dish as whatever cheese it was wrapped in pita. People don't want to feel intimidated, and they don't want to feel stupid."
Whether they can pronounce what they're eating or not, many believe the time for Greek to be the "it" food is right now. "I think the way Greeks cook makes a lot of sense given the way people are currently eating," Symon observes. "It's 100 percent purely seasonal food prepared in a pure fashion; the whole backbone is product and technique."