November 28, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
Loi: Cushions of Civilization
Co-owner-chef Maria Loi wants to know how you liked your food so far. Photo: Steven Richter
I’m hearing the voice of the people: Fish lovers. Refugees from Milos. Healthy eaters of a certain age. Grownups, shall I say, grateful for dignity? They’ll make a cross-town detour for a civilized cocoon. Tasting Table recommends it as ideal for out-of-town guests. That’s the chorus singing the virtues of Loi, a celebration of Greek cooking by Maria Loi in the sprawling space where Compass exhausted its nine lives.
Disarmingly charming, this imported entrepreneurial blonde doesn’t mind at all being called the Martha Stewart of Greece. The Martha mystique should only prevail on West 70th Street beyond her Easter egg orchid awning. So far the place is busy. Locals checking it out. “I love the people here,” she says. “They sent flowers to welcome me to the neighborhood. And I love the Jewish people. They say my recipes of 300 years from my grandmother are like their Sephardic grandmothers.”
"These are the real Greek meatballs" our Greek guest assures us. Photo: Steven Richter
Tonight, an accidental Greek with global credentials at our table assures me the salt-baked black bass is perfect and the baked meat patties are exactly right. I say accidental because he’s our friend Cassandra’s date and we’ve just met. “You may not like the meatballs so soft and full of cheese,” he says, dragging an oval through a dab of feta mousse sauce. “You may think they should be more Italian or Scandinavian or whatever you prefer. But they are exactly correct. They are Greek.”
A waiter delivers "real authentic" meat patties and crab cakes as starters. Photo: Steven Richter
I am explaining to Cassandra why I’m not head over heels in love here. “We’re not whole fish fans,” I admit. “The moussaka is delicious. It floats.” And I’m wild about Maria’s version of pastitsio (the Greek béchamel frosted macaroni with minced meat). Amazing what béchamel can do. “But how many times a month do you need to have moussaka? And it’s sort of expensive for everyday in the neighborhood.”
Whole salt-baked fish for two with grilled veggies at $48 undercuts other Greeks, our fish fanatic exalts. Photo: Steven Richter
“Expensive?” She is aghast. “This is cheap compared to Milos,” she reminds me, savoring her share of the salt-baked black bass for two. “We paid $135 for a whole fish there last week. And the whole fish at Avra and those other Greek places is just the fish. It doesn’t come with anything. This has a side of grilled vegetables.” She takes a thick cut of zucchini from the plate. I cut off a few inches of eggplant. “If this was my neighborhood,” she assures me, “I’d be here every night.”
Not that she isn’t complaining. We have that in common. We’re complainers. She lets the headwaiter know she preferred the thick rustic bread they served at the opening. (It was remarkable, I agree.) “Are you sure this fish was really two pounds?” she asks the waiter, eyeing her plate. And she thinks the veggies have soaked up too much oil. (Just enough, I think.)
Fresh and perfectly cooked grouper with tomatoes, onions, and chickpeas. Photo: Steven Richter
Though she savors the pale fish soup, a porridge of seafood shreds and vegetables, it seems somewhat bland to me. I favor a bold bouillabaisse-style fish soup with tomato and garlicky rouille. Still, our other guest’s fish of the night, wildly fresh, delicately cooked grouper with onions, chickpeas, and parsley is impressive.
Alas, the “crispy sweetbread” starter I ordered as an entrée is not crispy at all – it’s floury, the exhilarating lemony accent not enough to undo the damage. Steven’s lamb shank is a loutish hulk with nothing to recommend it. It will not be easy to persuade him to return. Perhaps he’ll be willing to share that rich Greek macaroni. And I’ll hope to have sea urchin again – just like tonight’s, served in five ceramic spoons.
Classic peasant salad: a generous pileup of raw vegetables with olives and feta. Photo: Steven Richter
I liked Compass when it opened in 2002, with John Fraser cooking, and in almost all of its constantly evolving incarnations over the years. I loved sliding into a leather booth – basking in the upscale fuss, our solicitous favorite waiter, the inevitable amuse, the spicy jalapeno biscuit, the cheddar muffin, the coffee cake in a sack to take home for breakfast. To be perfectly frank, my guy and I came for the $30 prix fixe, grumpy when it got to be $35. And we sometimes shared a chopped salad and the marvelous lamb burger with goat cheese and big fat fries in the bar…dinner for two under $50. Proximity was in its favor too. We could hike there in a blizzard from our pad three blocks away or drop in after a 68th Street movie.
Is this rooster with pasta slightly too authentic? Or just a bit tough? Photo: Steven Richter
I liked the room boldly red. I liked it enough when it tried being blue. Now it’s blue-grey and orchid here and there, with pomegranates in a bowl. Maybe it needed new energy, was ready for Maria Loi, soon to be a television fixture, making rounds of the room in her chef whites, red-framed spectacles in her hand, asking, “Do you like the food?” I can’t imagine anyone saying, I’m not exactly thrilled with the sort of chewy rooster in all this gravy. Or, maybe there could be more eggplant in the moussaka. Even I resist and just say thank you.
It’s our first visit to Loi a month ago with our neighbors. Growing up Irish in Brooklyn, our friend Diane had fallen for her next-door Greek neighbor’s food. “Order the lemon potatoes,” she urges. I choose them for my starter, reveling in big fat chunks of potato oozing lemony perfume. And the Horiatiki Loi is the classic Greek country salad under a roof of feta, a crunchy toss of tomatoes, sweet peppers, cucumber, onion, and olives, enough for all of us to share.
A sprawl of Greek cheese melted atop raw vegetables served in cast iron. Photo: Steven Richter
The Razor’s Edge Shiraz is a blind choice, unknown to me, and true to its tag, has a full, sharp after-taste I liked. Not everything is that memorable. Baked Greek cheese melt on thick slices of tomato and sweet peppers seems unresolved. The huge hill of braised rooster in an unremarkable wine sauce needs more curlicues of hilopites - homemade pasta.
I worried about Loi’s future when I read her vow to show New Yorkers real Greek food, I wondered if she’d ever eaten Greek in New York. Then someone introduced her to Michael Psilakis. She quickly got humble. Shouldn’t you go back to the kitchen once in a while and stain your apron, I think, as she lingers at each table that first evening, spinning her tale without a tinge of irony. She tells us she shot the panoramic photograph of the Corinthian Gulf from her porch on the island of Nafpaktos that has replaced Compass’s long abstract painting on the back wall. Is the fact that it is separated in the middle deliberate? She smiles. It’s impossible to say if I’m fooling myself or she’s fooling me. Loi is a tribute to her grandmother, she comments, “a very strong woman, tough, born in Sardinia. People called her by her last name, Loi.”
Desserts, still a work in progress, are a gift from the chef. Photo: Steven Richter
She gives desserts away. Her partners think it’s time she drew up a menu and charged. “But I like to give the dessert,” she insists. On our visit last week, she’s made Grandma Loi’s Greek panna cotta, flavored with mastic instead of vanilla, speckled with pomegranate seeds, served in phyllo shells, infinitely forgettable next to the sturdy baklava. Our Greek companion is ecstatic. “What great baklava,” he cries. “It’s the best baklava I’ve ever tasted.”
Is it really that good? There are just two tiny squares for the five of us, amidst beignets, whipped cream on phyllo pastry strings, cheesecake with preserved black cherries. I grab a tiny piece of the layered pastry for myself. Without the usual sticky syrup, it’s tough (like Grandma) difficult to cut with a knife, let alone a fork. Cassandra struggles to cut a small piece of the baklava with her fork. And then it’s gone, disappeared into her mouth, Cassandra, whose only dessert is sorbet. But I have my smidgen. And yes, it is that good. I try to chew slowly - the better to make the sweet nuttiness last longer, grooving on the subtle sighs of cinnamon and clove.
208 West 70th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues. 212 875 8600. Dinner Monday through Sunday 5 to 11 pm.