I knew I was going to love Kefi and I did.
After signing books at Best Cellars on the Upper West Side on Friday night, my dear pal Lisa (who lives up there now) joined me for the two block walk over to Kefi. “This is supposed to be great,” I told her. “Really good Greek food for not very much money.”
Michael Psilakis, Kefi’s chef, owns and runs Anthos, an appropriately lauded upscale Greek restaurant in the wasteland known as midtown Manhattan. The room at Anthos is a bit stuffy, the service is formal, and the food–almost all spectacular–is fussy, though elegant.
Kefi is like Anthos’s wild younger brother. Where Anthos went to Harvard, majored in chemistry, and married the debutante, Kefi bought a motorcycle and traveled the country, read Jack Kerouac, and dyed its hair pink. Well, the Greek version of that. Bought a toga and went island hopping?
Kefi is my kind of restaurant. Unpretentious, pulsing and homey; going there is like stepping into somebody’s crowded kitchen with all the chaos and excitement, the smells and noise and eager, hungry people. We showed up around 7:30 and they sat us right away. The room was crowded, people were yapping loudly, and we had to squeeze past several waiters and chairs and tables to get to ours.
Once we sat down, though, the noise faded away and Lisa and I tackled the menu. We immediately decided to order the spreads–traditional Greek spreads that had a lovely presentation:
Each spread had its own individual eye-shaped bowl. There’s taramasalata at the bottom (that’s caviar spread); tzaziki (going clockwise) which was super garlicky and creamy; some kind of red pepper spread and, finally, eggplant spread. The pita was hot and crusty and we scooped up our spreads with delight.
We had some very reasonable Greek white wine for $6 a glass. All in all, we were loving this place and for me the love doubled when my entree arrived.
Behold the sexiest swordfish I’ve ever met:
I’m not the world’s biggest swordfish fan–it can be boring and bland–but here it’s lovingly bathed in a sauce made with olives, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, garlic, lemon and parsley. This is rustic food at its best and it’s the kind of food I love the most. This, to me, is worth 8,000 pristine, perfect plates at a 4-star French joint (sorry Michael Ruhlman!) It’s honest, it’s simple, and it’s pleasing in the most primal way. I devoured this.
Alas, Lisa’s entree didn’t fare too well. There was only one truly vegetarian option on the menu and that was Sheep Milk Ravioli, Brown Butter and Sage which Lisa models for you here:
It’s not that it was bad or that it didn’t taste good, it was just really greasy. And then there were fried onions on top that only made the grease factor worse. Still, Lisa didn’t hate it. “It’s not bad,” she said. “It’s just really greasy.”
Thankfully, there was dessert. A walnut cake with walnut sorbet that defied our expectations:
I was thinking it’d be a dried-out cake that’d be moistened and improved by the sorbet; but the cake was wonderfully moist to begin with. And the flavors were bold and pronounced–cloves and cinnamon and orange zest–that had us both licking our chops.
When the check came, we couldn’t believe it. Incredibly cheap for this amount of food. (Lisa and I just chatted and we seem to recall the check being $57. Isn’t that quite reasonable for appetizers, two entrees, wine and a dessert?)
Many people are intimidated to eat out in the city for fear of getting taken advantage of or spending too much money or finding the food too unfamiliar or pretentious. That’s why I love places like Kefi: it wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no trickery here; what you see is what you get. And what you get is wonderful and quite cheap. I recommend it highly.
Kefi Restaurant; 222 W. 79th St. New York, NY 10024 (212) 873-0200.