The last time I ate at Kefi, Michael Psilakis' inviting Greek Taverna, I had never actually been to Greece. But last summer, I traveled to Greece for my honeymoon, and I returned with a more intimate knowledge of what Greek food should taste like, especially when eaten with the midday sun shining on the Aegean overlooking the sheer bluffs in Santorini. Granted, pencils would taste good in this setting, but Greek food is particularly suited to this climate. The steady heat of the summer days mixes quite well with platters of simply grilled fish and bowls of briny feta tossed with crisp cucumbers, luscious tomatoes, fat salty olives, and sweet grassy olive oil and a bottle or two of Mythos beer or Asyrtiko wine (a crisp white wine that I lived on for two weeks).
While Kefi, which recently relocated to a lofty duplex space from its relative cramped quarters on West 79th Street, cannot offer the heartbreakingly beautiful sunsets of Oia, or lazy days on the beaches of Paros, they do their best with what they’ve got on a busy stretch of Columbus Avenue. The setting is rather predictable for a Greek restaurant, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite nice: raw wood-beamed ceilings hung with baskets and urns, hand-painted plates adorning walls, with stretches of stone and exposed brick balancing bright white washed walls, and the sounds of Greek music playing overhead.
The upstairs room is reserved for mostly smaller groups of two or three, with the spacious windowed bar and tavern area saved for walk-ins, while the downstairs is reserved for large parties, which makes it quite a boisterous setting, one in which you might expect a spontaneous communal dancing or plate-throwing to begin.
As for the food, most of it is familiar territory for those who were fans of Kefi: reasonably priced variations on meals that include staples from the Greek pantry: olives, feta, tomatoes, capers, and potatoes. This flavor profile is repeated in almost every dish, and as Frank Bruni pointed out in his review, this redundancy may lead a sort of palate fatigue, but for me, it tasted like Greece. And that was just fine.
To pair up with dinner, there’s a fun selection of cocktails including the Athenian, mixed from Maker’s Mark, with mavrodaphne, and spiced syrup ($9), an Ouzo Sour made from Metxa ouzo, grapefruit, sugar and lemon ($8), and a Greek Margarita made from Lunzaul tequila with pear and cinnamon ($9). There’s also a nice beer list including Mythos, which brought back some fond memories.
Last week, I headed up to Kefi for a final dinner with my food writing students. As I passed the hostess station on the way down downstairs to a large circular table near the stairs, I heard her inform a table of walk-ins that there was a 45 minute wait. This was at 7pm on a Thursday night. The restaurant, which seats about 200, has topped 700 covers on some Saturday nights. Clearly, Psilakis and Arpaia know what their customers want, and it’s wonderful to see a restaurant thriving in this economy. I was thrilled. I was also happy about most of the food.
Starting out with the selection of spreads is always a good idea at any Greek restaurant. Here, the selection of spreads ($9.95, enough to share with a table of four) includes a tzatziki (a cool creamy yogurt, garlic, dill sauce), taramosalata (the classic fish roe spread), melintzanosalata (a smoky and spicy eggplant puree) and revithia (a thick and tangy chickpea and red pepper dip), served with warm pita bread fresh from the grill. This made me laugh. Not once in my two weeks in Greece was I ever served pita bread. I guess this was my misconception that pita was a Greek thing, but rather than round puffs of flat bread we were served hearty, grainy loafs of sunflower seed bread, often served grilled. While I would have welcomed the sunflower loaf, I love the pita at Kefi—it’s soft, warm and pocketless and is a lot less filling than the sunflower bread. And for me it makes the perfect edible shovel for the dips. And you can be sure, there was shoveling.
The warm feta is another appetizer suitable for these pliable pita shovels, a sort of Greek fondue of feta crowned with charred cherry tomatoes (sweet enough that I’d even put them in a pie topped with vanilla ice cream), olives, capers, anchovy and peppers ($6.95). Pile it all on your pita platform and have a bite. It’s like a Greek salad turned into Mom’s comfort food, and it’s a welcome alternative, especially on a cold night.
It is often said that the way to test a chef’s true skill is to have her roast a chicken. In Greece, that test would involve octopus, not poultry, and Psilakis would pass with straight As. His octopus ($9.95), a hefty, rather gnarly tentacle served straight off the grill in a curl on a bed of chickpea salad tossed with tomato, olive oil and capers. It’s a tad salty, but it’s so perfectly cooked you might not really care.
Meatballs ($6.25) are not traditional Greek fare, but why not have some when they’re lighter and fluffier than any meatball you’ve probably ever had. They’re served in a garlicky tomato sauce that might be mistaken for something from your Nonna’s kitchen if it weren’t loaded up with beautiful green olives.
While the meatballs were a crowd-pleaser, the house-made Cypriot sausage ($7.50, a mix of lamb and pork), presented quite artfully, skewered and arranged in a pyramid topped with a cucumber and yogurt salad, were not. They were not cooked through and raw sausage was not on my list of things to eat last week (or this week for that matter).
Throughout the meal, boisterous hoots and hollers from large parties echoed through the dining room. The energy is fantastic, but if you want to have conversation, not so much. Service is quite good though; despite the zoo-like atmosphere, they manage to keep their tables happy, refilling water glasses, watching for empty wine glasses, and making a point of checking in once the food has been served. It’s nice to see that level of care in a place that’s doing such high volume.
The fish coming out of the kitchen is magnificent. Swordfish is unusually moist, bedded on a sweet saffron-scented cauliflower, olive, and tomato ragout ($16.50), but the Branzino was the star fish of the night. Two ample fillets, sweet and silky and grilled with a gloss of olive oil and a shower of herbs, are served over roasted fingerling potatoes, tomatoes, and olives ($16.95), simple as can be. It reminded me of the fish I ate in Greece almost every day, and for that alone, I’d go back.
But I’d also return for at least one of the pastas—the melt-in-your-mouth sheep’s milk gnudi baked casserole-style with Merguez, tomato sauce and pine nuts ($13.95). While there was nothing like this to be found in Greece, I didn’t really care. It was spectacular. But I’d skip the braised rabbit “lasagna” ($11.95), which tasted of cinnamon and not much else. There’s also a strange obsession with topping pastas with fried shallots (this is the case with the simple cheese ravioli in brown butter and sage and the aforementioned braised rabbit). It’s sort of like Psilakis is trying to turn every pasta into some sort of green bean casserole. It’s very odd and altogether unnecessary, if not unpleasant.
Desserts include a disappointing rice pudding served ice cold, like it had been sitting in a walk-in for a night, and was made with starchy under-cooked rice, a wonderful custardy flan sandwiched between phylo dough and an equally good honey cake studded with walnuts that tastes like something your Jewish grandmother might make for the holidays, but served with walnut ice cream.
There’s a reason Kefi is so popular: the food is good, the price is right, and the atmosphere is inviting and casual, suitable for an easy weeknight dinner at the bar, or a festive weekend dinner with friends. And aside from the presence of pita bread, the food brought me back to Greece. Well, almost.