We will make it to Lincoln Center by 7:30, won’t we?” asked the woman of a certain age who was doing the early-bird shuffle with her tweed-jacketed husband at Kefi a few weeks ago. This was only Kefi’s first night in business, and although the question was not so much a question as a rebuke, the T-shirted waiter assured her with a polite nod that all was well. “Good. Now gimme a taste of this,” she said, pointing to another selection on the all-Greek wine list, having already dismissed two or three varietals. “Can you turn up the heat?” the husband asked as a kitchen runner flitted past him to deliver a plate of branzino to another table. “Hey!” he barked, thinking that the fish was meant for him. “Where’s he going?” asked the woman. “Come back!” cried the man.
And so it went for the rest of the meal and a performance that even Ionesco would have found a tad on the absurdist side: After assurances that their branzino was on the way, several adjustments of the thermostat, and regularly scheduled inquiries from her to him about the time, the waiter brought the baklava and the check, and the Lincoln Center–bound duo were merrily on their way. Aside from its entertainment value, this little scene provided the Underground Gourmet with a small window into the challenges of operating a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, home to what may be the world’s most finicky and demanding clientele (traits honed over generations in the mean-street aisles of Fairway and Zabar’s).
It’s a challenge intimately familiar to Michael Psilakis, the chef-owner of Kefi, who’d first opened the brownstone basement space as Onera three years ago to immediate critical acclaim. The refined, inventive Greek fare was new to New York, even daring. Psilakis made his mark on Manhattan’s fine-dining scene with his raw meze, an inspired Greek variation on a crudi theme, and his offal tasting menu, a hard sell in a neighborhood where the clientele cavil about branzino served whole. In a minor setback for nouvelle Greek but a major boon for budget gourmets and Upper West Side fussbudgets, Psilakis converted Onera (Greek for “dreams”) into Kefi (something like unbridled, plate-smashing bliss) six weeks ago, dispensing with the tablecloths and raw fish and turning his attention to the more traditional, rustic fare he grew up with in his parents’ house on Long Island.
Kefi’s menu might read a bit garden-variety Greek, with the requisite Feta and lamb, moussaka and spanakopita, but the food doesn’t taste that way. Even in the depths of winter, Kefi distinguishes itself with vibrant, vivid flavors that wake up hibernating taste buds. Take, for instance, the warm Feta meze. Riddled with capers and olives and crowned with a couple of briny anchovies, it’s not a dish for anyone on a low-sodium diet, but the bracing salinity is balanced by the creamy cheese and buttery olive oil, all swiped up with triangles of grilled pita. Grilled octopus, that Greek taverna staple, is firm but not rubbery and nearly upstaged by its garnish of black-eyed peas, chickpeas, and an herb salad that has no right to taste that fresh in February. Crispy cod was another winner, the tender pieces of delicately fried fish huddled on a mound of vinegary skordalia, Greece’s high-octane-garlic gift to the world of mashed potatoes.
Even in this trad-Greek framework, Psilakis manages to slip in the occasional refinement. His savory spreads arrive in elegant teardrop-shaped vessels, and his “open” spinach pie is more like a portion of good creamed spinach spooned into a cradle of crisp phyllo dough. If you like meatballs, Psilakis makes two of the best versions in town. One is a crock of airy beef-pork-and-lamb orbs, smothered in tomato sauce infiltrated with whole garlic cloves and halved olives. The other is an ethereal version of the Greek soup avgolemono, stocked with a small platoon of bite-size veal meatballs.
Kefi’s menu has a separate category for pasta, or “macaronia,” and you’d be well advised to heed it. Moussaka is daintier than usual, its beef ragout arranged between thinly sliced potatoes and eggplant, and a hearty pastitsio buries skinny tubes of pasta and beef ragout beneath an almost custardlike layer of oven-browned béchamel. (“Baby food,” harrumphed Ms. UG, while her cohort lapped it up.) Both of us, though, concurred on the superb wide, egg noodles, a harmonious cinnamon-scented composition of fork-tender pulled rabbit, tangy graviera cheese, sweet glazed pearl onions, and crispy deep-fried shallots.
If you have made it this far, through multiple meze and macaronia, you may lack the fortitude or stomach capacity to forge on. But if you do, you should know that the braised lamb shank is moist and meaty in its gargantuan excess and served with a side of delicate orzo, that the branzino conveys with it the charred fragrance of the grill and a scattering of delicious roasted potatoes, and that the humble pork souvlaki just might be the menu’s sleeper. Folded into a paper-wrapped grilled pita with gobs of tsatsiki, it is juicy and flavorful, and accompanied by a trio of garnishes that excel in their own rights (a creamy spinach-and-dill-dappled rice dish, roast cherry tomatoes with hot pickled peppers, and an herby lentil salad).
To match Kefi’s lower prices, Psilakis has retooled Onera’s wine list, which now offers an all-Greek selection of affordable bottles and several choices by the $6 glass. Service is extremely attentive and quick (theatergoers take note), and you get the sense, through expert Greek pronunciation and menu familiarity, that many of the fair-haired young waiters are Onera holdovers. Psilakis hasn’t given up on his haute Greek dreams; next week, he plans to revive a bit of the old Onera spirit at Anthos, the new restaurant he’s opening with Donatella Arpaia in midtown. But for now, for carping Upper West Siders and peregrinating Underground Gourmets alike, the kefi to be had at Kefi is an onero come true.
Address: 222 W. 79th St., nr. Broadway; 212-873-0200.
Hours: Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m.
Prices: Meze, $4.50 to $9.95; entrées, $9.95 to $15.95. Cash only.
Ideal Meal: R.P.: Spreads to share, meatball soup, pasta with braised rabbit, or pork souvlaki.
R.R.: Warm Feta, crispy cod, walnut cake with walnut ice cream.
Note: As good as the pastas and main courses are, it’s fun to make a meal out of several meze and sample the ouzo selection along the way.
Scratchpad: The windowless dining room, while comfortable enough, looks a bit like a Queens social-club basement. But this is exceptional Greek grandma cooking gently refined by a talented kitchen. We only hope the standards will remain this high once the chef de cuisine decamps for Anthos.