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In life, we are constantly bombarded by opportunities for comparison. You think, your last girlfriend was not was as funny as this girlfriend; your hair doesn’t look as good as it did yesterday, your new job is not as rewarding as your last job, your current weight is not as low as last year’s. It’s hard not to do spend a lifetime in pursuit of what was, or what could be better. While this is commonplace, it’s is not the greatest habit to get into, because what it does is prevent you from looking at what you have now, where you are now, for what it is, regardless of what it was yesterday. In a sense, what happens is that everything you experience is seen as a function of something else, which really isn’t ideal. In the restaurant business this is even more acute. Meals are often never judged for what they are but for how good or bad they are compared to others. And when you’ve been a chef for a while and have opened several restaurants (Onera, Dona, and Kefi, in this case), the danger of comparison is particularly acute.Review By: Andrea Strong
When I walked into Anthos, Michael Psilakis and Donatella Arpaia’s new modern Greek restaurant, my mind immediately went into comparison mode. It went to Dona, their sunny pan-Mediterranean jewel that closed earlier this year. Dona was one of my favorite restaurants to open last year. For midtown, it had a great sense of style—a lightness and elegance that made the room feel like it was bathed in sunlight even though it was in fact windowless. The room at Anthos, located in a dark corridor of 52nd Street, is also windowless, but this restaurant feels that way. While the bar area has a nice openness thanks to the glass façade facing the street, the dining room itself a drab fortress of gray and with its boxy shape and low ceiling it comes off lightless and rather uninspired. Bummer, man.
Luckily, the room’s flat feel is countered by great acoustics—this is a spot you can go to and actually have a conversation without having to scream—and serious service with gracious attention to detail in every aspect of the meal.
For instance, while you are sipping on your cocktails or sparkling Greek wine, your waiter will present you with a complementary selection of that evening’s complementary snacks. These are worth the price of admission alone. There were tender links of spicy meatball-like pork sausages from Cyrpus doused in a cool yogurt sauce, crispy peppered rock shrimp, deep-fried nuggets of sweetbread dressed in avgolemono (a bright sauce of egg and lemon), and an interesting tartar made from lamb that’s punched up with capers. With freebies like these, I’d be happy to sit there all night and just drink. In addition to the free snacks, you’ll get a choice of three types of bread and two types of butter—cow or goat. I’d go with the goat. It’s got a nice light tang.
The actual food on the menu also goes a long way to overcome the décor. Psilakis’ menu at Anthos is an abbreviated Greek-only version of his pan-Mediterranean menu at Dona, and I appreciate the editing. There were times at Dona when I felt overwhelmed by choice.
Luckily he doesn’t cut back on what has become his signature—raw mezze—what essentially amount to Greek sushi or crudo. Look out Dave Pasternack. There’s another fish whisperer in town. Psilakis was no doubt a sushi chef in another life because his selection of raw mezze ($18 for a selection of four) are magnificent. If there weren’t an issue of spoilage I’d say he should put them on display at MOMA or perhaps in the windows of Tiffany. Creamy diver scallops get played up with pungent pickled fennel and the light touch of coriander flower, a domino of silvery cobia fish was dressed with a gloss of olive oil, spring legumes and just a touch of green garlic. My favorite—the orange marlin, a stunning fish the color of a ripe peach—got topped off with rhubarb, sorrel, and a perfect crunch of sea salt. Other stars include the botan ebi prawns (those glistening pearly shrimp) tossed with bits of crumbled feta and spicy basil topped with tomato water, and a spectacular combination of sea urchin and delicately sweet Tasmanian crab topped with bright pops of trout roe and the soft zing of chives. Forget the bagel, cream cheese and smoked salmon—I’d happily eat this every Sunday morning.
While most of the raw fish was perfection, there were a few off notes. There was way too much ramp on the Taylor bays scallops—all I tasted was raw garlic; I felt ready to storm a Vampire’s castle. The tuna with mastic oil and lemon confit was also, well, strange. While the tuna was beautiful, there was a rubbery texture to the garnish that was unpleasant. And an oyster topped with romaine jus and pink peppercorn was rendered bitter from the garnish.
In between fish courses, Kathy, Julie, Katherine and I got to chatting about this and that, catching up. Katherine relayed the story of her engagement to her longtime boyfriend Dave (he proposed on top of the Empire State Building) and Julie told us about a wedding she would be attending in Texas where the bride and groom are not only decidedly conservative in their views of the world (I am being polite here), but also in their taste in food. They decided to have the food catered by (are you sitting down here?) the local hospital. We decided that Julie should check her baggage so that she could bring a suitcase full of booze (with a flask to make it purse-portable) to survive the ordeal.
As we were marveling at the madness of our fellow countrymen, the hilopita ($18) arrived. Now this is my kind of marvel. Psilakis takes handmade gnocchi made from sheep’s milk manouri cheese that are lighter than air, they are closer to helium, and anchors them to the dish with braised rabbit, and a meaty ragout of snails all brightened up with gentle flash of dill. This was fabulous.
Olive-oil poached halibut ($32) is pearly white and impossibly silky, set in a in shallow pool of ramp broth with morels, American caviar and a trio of the manti—the tiniest pinky-nail sized ravioli filled with cheese. While the fish could not have been cooked more exquisitely, I didn’t really get the concept of this dish. It didn’t make much sense as a whole—each part seemed too separate and distinct—the morels floated around in the ramp broth with beads of caviar and the little ravioli, and there was nothing really to hold it all together.
The yiouvetsi ($37)—a spicy shellfish stew served in a clay pot, was also hard to understand. While there was a fantastic aroma of the deep sea coming from the pot, it was pretty much just a pot of a few shellfish with little “stew” to speak of. There were two big scallops, a couple of mussels (which were overcooked), a couple of crayfish and a pair of razor clams, and this impossibly shallow pool of rich garnet-colored seafood broth with a few grains of orzo at the bottom of the bowl. For the life of me, I could barely get any of that broth from the pot and into my mouth. It was impossible to reach because the pot was too deep, and there was only about an eighth of an inch of broth in the pot. There just wasn’t enough of it. (Perhaps a straw?) The few times I got a few drops on my spoon were magical—that broth is smoky, spicy, and luxuriously rich. So, I was perplexed. Why keep this goodness from us? Why fill a pot with mostly shells and so little stew? And while I liked the accompanying crostini with trout roe and goat milk crème fraiche, it did little for my need to sop up the broth on the bottom of the bowl. It was comical. This dish could have been a star if there were a little more thought into it how it might be eaten.
Desserts, which are the creation of pastry chef Bill Corbett (he replaced Nancy Olson at Dona and previously worked at WD-50), are wonderful. One of them, simply entitled Sesame ($12), was almost the end of me, as I could not stop myself from eating it, and it’s quite rich. This is a dessert that should be shared but I was not doing a very good job of it. Corbett fills a scoop of sesame ice cream with a creamy center of caramel made from Metaxa (Greek brandy) and encases the ice cream in a frozen halva shell so it resembles a big hockey puck. He rests the puck on a mound of crumbled halva and a wave of chocolate sesame paste. When you crack through the halva coating, the ice cream oozes out with some of that creamy caramel center. Make sure to add a bit of the crumbly halva and chocolate sesame paste onto your spoon, and you’ve got the perfect blissful bite.
His baklava trio ($12) is also terrific—a classic honey-soaked diamond of pistachio baklava is accompanied by riffs on the baklava’s ingredients—honey custard with a brown sugar tuille, and a moist walnut cake with cinnamon ice cream. And just to make sure you’re satisfied after all is said and done, he sends out a beautiful selection of chocolate petit fours. Yes, you will be sated.
As I write this review, I am torn, because I think there are wonderful things about Anthos—the service, for one, is flawless. The room, while desperate for a little jolt of life, does provide a quiet respite from the fray of the world outside. But I can’t help but feel the pull of comparison taking over when it comes to the food. Michael’s food at Dona was better, and if I remember correctly also less expensive. It wasn’t cheap by any means, but the prices at Anthos seem outrageous. Most every entrée comes in comfortably over the $30 mark—a sirloin is $46, the rack of lamb is $44, and several appetizers are $18. It’s a plain fact that Michael is a very talented chef, and he’s also someone who’s got so much passion for what he does, and so much genuine enthusiasm for the ingredients that he works with, that eating his food can be a true joy. That kind of love for what you do comes through in the cooking for sure. But there’s also something about shelling out that kind of money for food that’s not quite hitting the mark in a room lacking inspiration that doesn’t quite sit well with me. I’d thought that it was the sting of comparison to Dona that had me disappointed, but now that I really think about it, I don’t think that’s it. More likely, it’s that Anthos, in and of itself, is a work in progress, and one that still needs some time to grow into what it will eventually be.
Neighborhood: West 50s
Chef: Michael Psilakis
Hours: Lunch: Monday - Friday: 12:00pm - 2:45pm Dinner: Monday - Thursday: 5:00pm - 10:30pm Friday - Saturday: 5:00pm - 11:00pm
Entree Price: >$30
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