1, 2, 3 at 72nd St.
Appetizers, $8 to $20; entrées, $21 to $44.
American Express, MasterCard, Visa
Maria Loi’s eponymous Greek restaurant looks at first like another in the long string of doomed culinary concepts that have been tried over the years in what’s known in restaurant circles as the Compass space, on 70th Street off Amsterdam Avenue. There’s a new sign over the door, of course, adorned with what appears to be a hastily rendered logo featuring loopy script and white leaves against a bright-purple background. The flatly lit, sparsely populated bar area in the front of the house appears the way it did during previous incarnations (“Like the stateroom of a Slovenian cruise ship” was how one dining companion described it to me long ago), and if you feel like lingering there these days, the slightly haunted-looking bartenders will serve you cocktails with hokey cruise-ship names like Taste of Greece and Fire of Patras, which is made with Knob Creek, sweet Greek wine, and a touch of honey.
Once you move into the main dining room, however, the sense of foreboding lifts a little and the mood begins to change. The walls of the endlessly redesigned room are now trimmed in white and decorated with soothing photos depicting the green Nafpaktos coast. There’s a tray of fresh pomegranates by the doorway, along with bottles of Greek wine and loaves of bread. The backs of the chairs are covered in elegant striped satin, and the tables are arranged in neat rows and set with crisp white linens. Unlike in the past, they’re actually filled with diners, merrily tucking into hot baked spinach pies threaded with feta, platters of keftedakia meatballs, and dainty cheese croquettes garnished with a fig compote. Some nights, you might even see Loi herself—the self-proclaimed Martha Stewart of Greece—bustling around the room, greeting customers with her practiced laser-beam smile.
Like her American doppelgänger, Loi radiates a sense of focused, almost terminal cheeriness, and she’s made a career as a cookbook author and TV hostess out of taking the basic everyday elements of Greek cuisine and repackaging them with her signature brand of quirky, crowd-pleasing style. There are four kinds of salad on her classic taverna menu (get the horiatiki, with feta, chunks of tomato, and Loi’s vinaigrette) and if you order the ahini sea-urchin appetizer, the dabs of fresh urchin are served in porcelain spoons pooled with olive oil, with buttery triangles of toasted pita on the side. The grilled shrimp at Loi are wrapped in crunchy strands of shredded wheat, the calamari are cut in little twirls and soaked in a rich pistachio sauce, and the superb charred octopus was sprinkled with fried chickpeas and shavings of almond on the evening I enjoyed it, and had the soft consistency of a fresh plum.
As is sometimes the case when dining in Greece, some of the more standard entrées at Loi weren’t as successful as these classic seafood dishes. Ms. Platt had nothing but kind things to say about Maria’s “traditional” moussaka (daintily sized and capped with a light béchamel), but my lemonato chicken was flabby-skinned and drenched in too much gooey lemon sauce. The grilled branzino was a fresher, more satisfying dish than the frighteningly large braised lamb shank (arni), and if you have to choose between the elegantly prepared salt-baked fish for two (red snapper with roasted garden vegetables, say) and the leaden brick of macaroni pastitsio, choose the fish. Its fresh lightness is a perfect complement to Loi’s robust, home-style desserts, the best of which—sweet galaktoboureco (made with semolina and honey), soft wedges of walnut cake, and crumbly crusted Greek cheesecake poured with preserved cherries—taste like they’ve been baked in one of the better home kitchens in Athens.Ideal Meal
Sea-urchin ahini, grilled octopus, market fish for two, galaktoboureco.