Given the gluttonous appetite for new dining trends in this restaurant-crazed town, sooner or later every imaginable kind of cuisine is bound to have its flickering, Warholian moment in the sun. Right now, we appear to be experiencing a Greek moment. Stolid midtown establishments like Molyvos and the stylish seafood house Milos have been operating at high, Zagat-approved levels for a while now. But in the past year or so, trendy new Greek-“influenced” and Greek-“informed” restaurants have been popping up all around town. These days, diligent food freaks can enjoy gourmet cocktails spiked with ouzo (at Barbounia), hamachi tartare wrapped in grape leaves (Thalassa), and artful meze dumplings filled with goat meat (Parea). And now comes Anthos, a new expense-account restaurant on 52nd Street, where hordes of businessfolk can contemplate silvery rows of sardines escabèche, crispy pieces of John Dory floating in ramp broth, and grilled octopus garnished with the slightest hint of orange purée.
The architect of the menu at Anthos is Michael Psilakis, a talented, kinetic chef who is fast becoming the poster boy of this unlikely Greek revival, the Mario Batali of “New Aegean” cuisine. Psilakis opened his first haute-Greek establishment, Onera, a few years ago, on the Upper West Side. Then came Dona, an elegant, three-star, “Pan-Mediterranean” operation (Psilakis is also adept at Italian cooking) run with his partner, the restaurateur Donatella Arpaia. Psilakis and Arpaia have since replaced Onera with a more classically Greek restaurant called Kefi, and Dona closed after the lease was bought out to make room for a hotel (it’s supposed to reopen when a new location is secured). Anthos, which occupies a boxy, innocuous space among the towers of midtown (there’s a standard bar up front, a large mirror in the back, and white walls decorated with paintings of random, un-Greek cherry blossoms), feels like a curious jumble of these previous restaurants. It’s more upscale than Kefi but less elaborately produced than Dona, with a shorter menu and a more straightforward culinary focus.
The culinary focus at Anthos is Greece, of course, though whether Psilakis’s grandmother (he grew up in a Greek-American family on Long Island) would recognize anything on her plate is doubtful. Psilakis is a self-taught cook, unencumbered by traditions and orthodoxies. One of his signature dishes is crudi (mostly fish, but occasionally meat), served with a profusion of esoteric ingredients, in the small-plate style of Greek meze. Here he offers sweet Taylor Bay scallops touched with peppermint and pistachio, slices of yellowtail dusted with fennel pollen, and nickel-size slivers of raw tuna dabbed with lemons and mastic oil, which, in case you didn’t know, is a kind of resin made from a tree that grows on the island of Chios. The sardine escabèche is plated over cool planks of cucumber and flavored with a rich, almost tarlike purée of Thasos olives. Little mounds of Tasmanian crab are buried under a tsatsiki made with sea urchin, and that great Japanese delicacy botan ebi (pearly shrimp) is presented with a crumbling of feta cheese.
As crudi go, this is all pretty good stuff, but the best dishes at Anthos tend to be solidly grounded Greek recipes, which Psilakis interprets in a variety of inventive ways. The orange-flavored octopus, for instance, is texturally perfect (charred outside, soft within) and surrounded on the plate with softly cooked lobes of garlic. Psilakis takes a wide Greek egg noodle called hilopites, lays it out on the plate in a flat rectangle, and smothers it in a tasty mash of rabbit, black truffles, fat braised snails, and little chunks of creamy manouri cheese. A sturdy shellfish stew called yiouvetsi is layered with orzo and a rich saffron broth that grows richer and more complex as you eat your way to the bottom, and Psilakis’s elegant version of skordalia soup is laced with crushed beets and bits of crispy cod and poured at the table, in high Parisian style, from a porcelain teapot.
The entrées at Anthos are mostly standard midtown specialties dressed up in various exotic ways. There is a dull, undercharred sirloin steak available for $46, and pink, salty lamb chops served with a delicious cinnamon-flavored moussaka. In this, the era of the pig, there are pork chops, of course, dressed in a mild, lemony emulsion derived from the famous Greek soup called avgolemono, with a chunk of not very Greek pork belly on the side. My portion of roast chicken (part breast, part crispy thigh) was expertly deboned and drenched in a nice lemony sauce, and my neighbor’s whole loup de mer was grilled, stuffed with olives, among other things, and arranged on the plate in little segments in a decorative, architectural way. The tasters at my table agreed that the limp John Dory could have done without its bath of weirdly salty ramp broth, but the swordfish was beautifully cooked and served with a strange though tasty medley of baby octopus and plump little seftalia sausages from Cyprus.
Compared with other glamorous Donatella Arpaia productions (Dona, davidburke & donatella), there is a flatness to the proceedings at Anthos, a curious dearth of fabulousness to the room. With its wan lighting and undistinguished design, the space feels transitory and slapped together, as if the proprietors were biding their time while they figure out how to recapture the magic they had at Dona. But we’re in the gray canyons of 52nd Street, after all, and if you’re looking for glamour, you’ll find a measure of it in the desserts. Yogurt, that old Greek staple, comes in little tasting portions (topped with fennel and candied lemons, with mint gelée on the side) laid out sideways in what looks like a large, slightly deformed glass bong. I liked the shiny chocolate torta, and an intricate riff on the gourmet possibilities of baklava called “Baklava Trio.” But best of all is “Sesame,” a wild, textural mixture of sesame flavors surrounding a wheel of gourmet halvah filled with caramel. Break the wheel with your spoon, and the whole thing blends together in an agreeable, slightly mysterious way, like some imaginative Hellenic version of crème brûlée.
Address: 36 W. 52nd St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-582-6900
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 2:45 p.m. Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $15 to $18; entrées, $28 to $46.
Ideal Meal: Raw meze, hilopites, or skordalia; grilled swordfish; Sesame dessert.
Note: The Greek white wines are well-chosen, particularly those from Santoríni.
Scratchpad: As he showed at Dona, Psilakis is a bona fide multi-star chef. His imaginative cooking here rates three stars, but we’ll subtract half a star for the narrowness of the menu, and another half for the bland décor.