This venue is closed.
The proprietors of Persephone are Steve Tzolis and Nicola Kotsoni, who run Il Cantinori, in the Village, and also Periyali, in the Flatiron district, which, once upon a time, served as the city’s model for elegantly traditional Greek cuisine. These are small, dependable establishments, with settled menus and an even more settled clientele, and Persephone has been conceived in their mold. The room’s rafters are painted in colorful stripes to resemble, the waiter politely informed my mother, a seaside taverna in Greece. The appetizers include faithful renditions of the usual taverna favorites, like curls of soft char-grilled octopus, chunks of fresh tomatoes tossed with feta and onions, and squares of salty fried halloumi sheep’s-milk cheese imported from Cyprus. The worst of these little dishes was a plate of gum-thick cod fritters; the best was the octopus, which goes nicely with the tomato salad and a helping or two of sweet, puréed fava beans poured with olive oil and served with toasty triangles of pita.
This is pretty tame stuff in this era of increasingly pyrotechnic nouveau-Mediterranean cooking. But what the non-Mediterranean chef, James Henderson, lacks in originality he makes up for in the quality of his ingredients (the boutique origins of which are mercifully excluded from the menu), and in his execution. If you have to choose, go for the heavier, more rustic dishes over the lighter, more subtle ones. There is nice peasant-style rabbit stew simmered with what appear to be a thousand pearl onions, and a dense helping of moussaka served in a quaint porcelain ramekin and flavored with plenty of nutmeg and cinnamon. The grilled dishes are also uniformly excellent, particularly the bone-in veal chop over a mound of pleasingly oily crushed potatoes, the earthy, crunchy-skinned rack of lamb, and the quail, which is set over a tangle of sautéed escarole and dandelion greens and scattered with crumblings of fresh feta.
Some of the seafood items, like the watery shellfish orzo, are bulky by comparison, although my mother made polite noises about her salmon fillet, which was buried in a drift of very un-Greek black-eyed peas. In fact, my mother made polite noises about most things she encountered at Persephone. She liked the smell of roses in the clean little room, and the cosseted sense of clubbiness that used to be the hallmark of the best restaurants in town. She liked the glass of Muscat presented to us after dessert, and she even liked the desserts, which by today’s baroque standards are simplicity itself. The flan tastes of cream and burnt sugar, the way flan is supposed to taste, and the smooth Greek yogurt is served unadorned on the plate. It comes with “spoon fruits” of candied orange peel, cherries, and candied grapes on the side. Ask politely, like my mother did, and they’ll even drizzle it with honey nectar flown in specially from Crete.