|Photo credit: Kenneth Chen.|
Maybe it’s true, as New Yorkers never tire of saying, that the Upper West Side is the fine-dining equivalent of the Arctic Circle. But it’s also true that there’s an infectious, communal enthusiasm among that neighborhood’s diners that you don’t see in other parts of town. Like body surfers in the Great Lakes, say, or hamburger enthusiasts in Great Britain, Upper West Side gastronomes have an outsize affection for their local dining spots. Whenever a half-decent restaurant appears above 72nd Street, they gratefully pack it for months, then disperse around the city to spread the word. Onera, which opened several months ago on 79th Street, is the newest name on everyone’s lips. One resident connoisseur told me he’d been there four times for dinner, and another called it her “favorite restaurant of the year.” They spoke in breathless tones about the meze-style crudi and the chef’s offal tasting menu, a risqué compilation of grilled kidneys, braised veal tongue, and even seared calves’ brains served with a very un–Upper West Side hint of truffle sauce.
Onera (the name means “dreams” in Greek) occupies the same compact, dimly lit basement space that for many years housed an eccentric neighborhood establishment called 222. When I finally made my trek uptown, the cabdriver had trouble finding the place because the small, hobbit-size entrance was obscured by discarded Christmas trees. Inside, there was a little anteroom–bar area (where I cooled my heels for 45 minutes after arriving early for a nine o’clock table) that felt less like a place to gather for drinks than the waiting room in a prosperous uptown dentist’s office. The dining room was almost as snug, and filled, on the evenings I visited, with neighborhood regulars (demure female novelists, retired psychoanalysts, merry food professionals) all huddled together in a small collection of tables covered in white linen. The walls of the restaurant are painted in vivid shades of white and Mediterranean blue, a Greek motif further highlighted by the chandeliers, which are playful replicas of the kind of spiky gold constellations you see hanging from the ceilings of diners along the highways of suburban Long Island.
As it turns out, the chef-owner, Michael Psilakis, actually lives out on suburban Long Island, where his last venture was an Italian restaurant. Psilakis is Greek, however, and at Onera, he takes classic old dishes like meze and moussaka and roast lamb and turns them inside out, in a variety of inventive, generally pleasing ways. The first thing I sampled was a big-city version of traditional Greek meatball soup, called giouvarelakia, consisting of cocktail-size veal meatballs dropped in a nice lemony broth, all obscured by a cloud of trendy cappuccino-style foam. After that came the meze-crudi tasting plates, which were composed of sweet, creamy scallops (touched on top with an appealing yogurt-cucumber sauce and bits of anise), not very fresh uni (served over round slivers of beets and a warm fondue sauce made with haloumi cheese), delicious ribbons of raw veal (blanketed with crisped capers, tuna, and nuggets of bottarga), and also lamb (with diced kalamata olives, frizzled shallots, and a light crumbling of feta cheese).
Sad to say, the offal-tasting extravaganza had disappeared by the time I got to Onera, although a few of the less jarring dishes (unfortunately, not the calves’ brains with truffle sauce) have been dispersed throughout the menu. My favorite appetizer was a little portion of braised veal tongue (on the seasonal menu), swimming in a ragout of porcini mushrooms and white beans, with a poached egg on the side. There are also fine, crispy sweetbreads available, and a platter of good crescent-shaped ravioli called manti, stuffed with a nourishing mix of puréed chestnuts and a hint of bone marrow. Non-offal pasta items include delicate, sweet gnocchi-like dumplings made from sheep’s milk (in a tomato sauce spiked with spiced lamb sausage, feta, and pine nuts), a brick of stodgy, glutinous pastitsio (macaroni, ground lamb, plus a thick, gummy béchamel top), and an interesting multitiered, Alfred Portale–style construction called open moussaka, made with round slices of eggplant and layers of a kind of rich ragù made not with beef or lamb but with braised goat.
I can’t remember the last time I encountered a platter of really good braised goat moussaka on the Upper West Side, and neither, I bet, can you. The larger entrées at Onera tended to be more mainstream, however, with a few rudimentary Mediterranean flourishes thrown in. The bronzino (simply grilled, with artichokes) and the John Dory (served in a butternut-squash broth with orzo and crisp shallots) were good, although my helping of red mullet was drowned in a thick purée of parsnips, fava beans, and crushed lentils. There was nothing very Greek about the sautéed chicken (although it was good, too), or the seasonal venison loin, which was tough as a hockey puck. The duck breast tasted the way duck tastes all over town, although the pork had a refreshing lemony flavor to it (it’s served two ways, in accordance with current fashion, as sliced tenderloin and pork belly), and the chef’s gourmet lamb entrée came with a whole grab bag of Mediterranean foods and flavors, like chickpeas, tsatsiki sauce, and a crust of mashed sun-dried tomatoes.
All of this ambitious food is devoured with gusto by the crowds of locals, who jam Onera night after night, bent on having a good time. They toast each other with sticky glasses of ouzo, hail members of the wait staff like long-lost relatives, and squint earnestly at labels of the restaurant’s impressively obscure Greek wines. They plow gamely through a host of overly fussy desserts with names like “A Rose Sampling” and “Baklava Interpreted.” Except for a pink nugget of Turkish delight, the components of “A Rose Sampling” tasted perilously like bath soap to me, and the baklava dish (constructed in creamy layers, like a napoleon) wasn’t nearly as good as the real thing. But the fusion ice creams (toasted sesame, prune, and Armagnac) were good, as was “Chocolate and Sesame,” a rich, gooey chocolate cake dusted with bits of halvah and a tahini sauce. It’s dishes like these that raise the food at Onera above the level of your standard neighborhood restaurant. If you don’t believe me, just ask your friends on the Upper West Side.
Ideal Meal: Veal or lamb crudo, sweetbreads, braised veal tongue, sheep’s-milk dumplings, lamb, “Chocolate and Sesame.”
Note: Onera’s mostly Greek wine list is an education, but if you’re stumped, order any of the delicious whites from the island of Santorini.