December 20, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
Mussels with spicy lamb and chickpeas would definitely lure me back. Photo: Steven Richter
For a time it seemed to me that Chef Michael Psilakis had vaporized in a vainglorious cloud, disdaining local stardom, abandoning his dream at Anthos, leaving the feisty Mia Dona to his partner. Only his transplanted taverna Kefi was still thriving. Well, now he’s back on the radar, with the wandering Ryan Skeen (Irving Mill, Five & Diamond) as his second, and a dizzyingly complex concept in the tiny space on West 79th Street. It’s where his Manhattan climb began with the beloved Onera. Where Kefi hatched, where the over-the-top comfort food of Gus and Gabriel failed to amuse. He calls his new oeuvre Fish Tag, for the metal label with date and source that comes on shellfish deliveries, in case of question.
The dining room is opened up and softened by bare brick walls. Photo: Steven Richter
Maybe he had too much time to conjure up this creation. It’s almost too complicated, even for the most dedicated waiter to explain. I watch across the room as one leans on the table, fanning menus for new arrivals…explaining. Still, opened up and softened down to the bare brick, marble-topped bar stretched nearly to the door, the spot looks almost grand. A big wooden harvest table with cheese and goodies chases tables that crowded the dining room, 65 seats are now 50.
Once I taste the smashed fries, I don’t care that the lamburger is lame. Photo: Steven Richter
After two visits I’m excited to say that most of the food is very good, even wonderful, with a staccato of flubs. But, it’s just going into its third week. I’m thinking I’ll add Fish Tag to my neighborhood hangouts just for the unforgettable reverie of lightly smoked potato and yogurt soup with bay scallops and trout roe floating below and the best fried potatoes I’ve ever had.
But first, the initiation. That’s us snickering as the hipped-up disciple and general manager Gianni Cionchi attempts to explain the pile up of official papers accumulating on the table. The menu itself is not easily parsed, arranged not by category, but rather going from lightest to heaviest, he indicates, with suggested booze pairings alongside – yes, booze, not just red or white, spicy or fruity, but tequila or rum. Then there’s a seven-page addendum documenting the “Cheese Service,” “Appetizing Service,” “Cured Meats Service,” “Coffee Service,” “Espresso Service,” “Tea Service,” “Ice Cream and Sorbet Services.”
“The Tea Service,” Ava chuckles. “Please allow five minutes for steeping,” the menu advises. “Where are we?”
Michael Psilakis and Ryan Skeen form a mutual admiration society. Photo: Steven Richter
The trophy for most confusing menu organization passes right now from Michael White to Michael Psilakis.
On the other side of my brain though, I’m thinking it’s wonderful to know you don’t have to pay Per Se prices for pretentious ambition. Here it is at a neighborly discount, appetizers big enough for two or three to share just $10 to $15, entrees $19 to $26. On that first visit I’m pleased to finally figure out that starters are in red, entrees in black, so we can finally order. After a prelude of remarkable cheeses served with a cup of pickled vegetables and toasted olive oil-slicked country bread – Steven’s son Nico visiting from Santa Monica insists – I am swooning over the yogurt nectar, not quite hot enough in temperature, alas, but marvelous even so, in a tub that’s big enough for three to share.
“You don’t dare to do an Upper West Side restaurant and be stingy with the portions,” Gianni confides.
Slices of raw scallop layered with pickled beet and bone marrow in an explosion of flavors float like small islands across a pedestaled cake stand streaked with pistachio and almond stickum. The white porcelain stand is a new Psilakis twitch. I see it topped with roasted salmon at the next table. It looks monumental. But it’s not much fun eating food three inches below your chin.
The kitchen sends sea urchin in ocean water with freeze-dried currents. Photo: Steven Richter
The four of us – uni freaks all - agree to avoid the sea urchin crudo “in ocean water.”
“I don’t want to drink Rockaway water,” Nico says.
It arrives anyway, gift of the kitchen, just as it comes from Tokyo in Japanese seawater, with a few freeze-dried currants for crunch. Uni enough for all of us, though I’m not sure why it needs the water. “That’s how we eat it in Greece,” Psilakis tells me later.
Lemony smoked octopus with chorizo and mushrooms on potato purée is swoon worthy too. And the outsize Jonah crab and eggplant bruschetta in a furry wrap of grated Greek cheese is enough for each of us to taste. Scary to look at, but delicious. Why does it need both pine nuts and smoked almonds? Because one ingredient is never enough when two can do for Psilakis. I like the canned tuna and ricotta bruschetta too, tricked out with spicy peppers, pickled pearl onions, garlic confit and fried herbs. Needless to say you won’t find the bruschetta choices listed together on this menu. Don’t even try.
Brainzino stuffed with head cheese looks dapper but it’s overcooked. Photo: Steven Richter.
This is not the remarkably juicy lamb burger I fell in love with at Anthos. It’s drier and can’t be rare, of course, because it’s mixed with pork. The feta and spicy chili sauce doesn’t help. But it almost doesn’t matter because I’m dumbstruck by the first bite of the fries. I need a second one quick, just to be sure. Only some demonic wizardry could produce these shards of potato so crispy, crusty, crunchy, buttery soft within. “They’re cooked three times,” the chef confides.
Branzino stuffed with head cheese? Offal? Yes. The chef sneaked that in for his legion of innards fans. No wonder he and the pork-meister Skeen get along so well. The dish loves the camera but it’s wildly overcooked. But my swordfish with Greek sausage on spicy bulgur salad is perfect, cooked faintly pink, the way I like it.
I asked for my swordfish rare and I got rosy perfection. Photo: Steven Richter
The sheep's milk dumplings I could never resist at Kefi are fluffed up here with bay scallops, crab, aji, amarillo chiles, sea urchin fonduta and avgotaraho (Greek bottarga). Uni fiend that I am, I could have invented it myself in a dream, but it just doesn’t work tonight: too creamy, too soupy, not enough briny scent. And the pasta with braised cuttlefish, smoked mozzarella and ricotta salata is a dark, salty mess. It’s hard to believe the delicate hand that stirred the yogurt soup is the hairy paw that tossed the pasta.
You’ll have to ask for the rose-scented Turkish Delight. Photo: Steven Richter
“What’s that sugared stuff?” Nico asks Cionchi, pointing to the harvest table and a glass-domed cake stand, a pyramid of pink jelly-like cubes inside. Gianni sets it on our table and lifts the cover. Biting into the lush rose-perfumed Turkish Delight reminds me of my mother Saralee. She used to buy it at J. L. Hudson’s in Detroit in fruit flavors. It was her favorite candy. “I guess we should call it Greek Delight.” Gianni muses.
Back two nights later, the Road Food Warrior and I know the drill. Lightest to heaviest, red for appetizers, black for entrees. Now I have time to study the jottings in the margins of the menu: I notice the house recommends an “explosive or bold white,” “an earthy or funky red,” “sipping rums,” “a peaty Scotch” and “hoppy or bitter ales” with the marvelous Bouchot mussels and spicy lamb. Alas for Steven, they don’t stock a non-alcoholic beer. (Click here for Insatiable Critic’s tasting of non-alcoholic brews) And they don’t serve bread unless you ask. But there are two toasted slices stuck in the basin piled high with small mussels, Merguez sausage, spicy chunks of lamb, pickled leeks and chickpea confit, more than enough for the two of us even though we’re tossing out the few shriveled critters.
Too many ingredients thrill in a chopped chicory, arugula, bulgur salad. Photo: Steven Richter
The three-too-many-ingredients rule probably enhances the chopped chicory, wild arugula and bulgur salad toss – a luscious gathering of Medjool dates, pomegranates, green olives, breakfast radish, pistachios, peppers, grilled onions, andsmoked almonds. It is ridiculous eating it from the cake stand. Tremulous salmon, cooked the way I like it, on a nest of Greek “spoon” salad, is framed by a white rectangle of ironstone large enough to hold a suckling pig, so heavy the waiter struggles to set it down. Our guest arrives an hour late, just in time to share half my dish. The three of us are tasting a Westside portion of ice cream too – three scoops for $5. Coffee is our favorite over the ricotta or the fig. But no rose-perfumed candy arrives. It seems you have to ask.
I catch Psilakis at home trimming his Christmas tree next day.
“Are you serious?” I ask. “Peaty Scotches with grilled branzino or mussels? Sake or gin with yogurt soup?”
Roasted salmon nests in Greek “spoon” salad with anchovy vinaigrette. Photo: Steven Richter
“I thought of it as a wine bar with fish,” he said. “A fish parlor. The female version of a gastropub.” He expounds on the black holes of the menu and of course it makes sense. “You can have any fish you choose simply grilled with potato and rapini, or one of our composed fish dishes. You can sit at the bar with just a bruschetta and a beer. But you should experiment with the beverages – we offer everything by the taste, the glass, the half bottle or the bottle. Any dish will taste very different if you have it with Scotch or gin, red wine or a dark beer.”
There will be a weekly meat special: dry aged sirloin and smashed potatoes, $40 for two starting today. Whole animals will be coming in too. Next week, a whole pig. “That will allow Ryan to do his stuff,” Psilakis says. “That will satisfy the carnivore thing.”
222 West 79th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. 212362 7470. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10 pm, Friday and Saturday till 11. Cured fish and meats are served at the bar till one hour after the kitchen closes.