Stoy and photography by Manos Angelakis
871 7th Ave,
New York, NY 10019
For those that are interested in exploring the evolution of Greek-American restaurant cuisine over the last 15 years or those that are looking for exceptional Greek-style dining, there is no easier way than dining at New York City’s Molyvos Restaurant.
The Livanos family opened Molyvos in 1997, the first upscale Greek restaurant to open in Manhattan.
Prior to that, Greek food was known as the purview of the numerous dinners and coffee shops that Greek cooks had owned and operated in every major and many minor US cities and the tavernas that dotted Astoria, the Greek enclave in the borrow of Queens in New York, Greektown in Chicago, and all US cities with large Greek communities. The signature dishes in these establishments were Pasticcio (a Hellenisized version of Italian Lasagna, covered with a thick layer of Béchamel) and Moussakas (a layered eggplant and meat-sauce dish with origins in the Ottoman Empire, also covered with a thick layer of Béchamel). A few other well known specialties were Spanakotiropita (spinach and feta cheese in phyllo dough) and Souvlaki (a dish of grilled, skewered meat cubes common in most Eastern Mediterranean countries) and Donner Kebab (also of Ottoman origin), and of course melitzanosalata, taramosalata, tzatziki and scordalia (dips used as appetizers in every Greek restaurant and dinner I’ve been in).
An update of the interior of Molyvos in 2012 to look like a space reminiscent of the Greek islands, and the appointment of Diane Kochilas, a Greek TV-chef and cooking personality as Collaborating Chef, has changed the focus of the menu. The food was always upscale-Greek, but in the past it was much closer to classic Athenian cooking, with its heavy emphasis on Ottoman-style dishes.
Fresh vegetables, fish and seafood are the basics of the current menu as well as specialties of the Greek islands; and the dishes are considerably lighter than in the past. Adding to the seaside Mediterranean feel is a beautiful fish display that showcases the restaurant’s fresh daily offerings. Fresh fish raised in mariculture pens in remote Aegean coves are flown-in daily from Greece. Sea bass (lavraki), gilthead bream (fangri), large porgies (tsippoures); all were swimming in the sea the day before and are charcoal-grilled in Molyvos’ kitchen together with octopus and sardines from Portugal, one of the very few non-Greek fish offerings.
A great starter was a quintet of classic dips that included Santorini fava, melitzanosalata, tzatziki and taramosalata and three cheeses -- a really nice feta, kaseri and kefalograviera -- accompanied by char-grilled pita bread. Drizzled with olive oil and topped with capers, dill or olives, it was an excellent reminder of the feasts I had the year-before-last while visiting wineries on Santorini Island (see the Santorini story in the destinations section).
Prawns and Artichokes a la Polita is a dish of grilled prawns with olive-oil stewed artichokes, leeks, fennel, and lemon sauce that was created in Istanbul by Greek cooks toiling in the Sultan’s kitchens. Artichokes a la Polita, is classic Athenian cooking and the prawn addition enhanced what was already an outstanding dish.
Spinach “cigars”, is a version of “Spanakopita” wrapped in phyllo and deep fried for a few minutes. It was lovely and satisfying.
Fish and meat main courses are similar to what a Greek islands woman would serve to her family and the desserts I had were truly inspired.
But the main reason for our visit was the exceptional Greek wine cellar of Molyvos.
Wine director Kamal Kouiri, has hand-picked an extensive selection of bottled Greek wines; practically every outstanding wine that has been produced in Greece in the last 15 years. About 60 wines are available by the glass, changing on a regular basis to expose guests to unknown Greek producers and the wine list includes about 540 vintners altogether. In addition he has procured many brands of ouzo, the anise-flavored aperitif so beloved by Greek, Turkish and Lebanese gastronomes. He has even managed to find exceptional “Retsina” a resin-scented wine that used to be the wine standard of every Greek taverna and restaurant, but is no longer. As I always say “This is the best tasting turpentine one can ever drink!”
White wines from Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Malagousia, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Roditis, Muscat and Malvasia are there from the best Greek wineries that create both monovarietal wines and blends. The islands are well represented, with both well known grape varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Assyrtiko and little known varietals, such as Sideritis and Kidonitsa.
The exceptional Assyrtiko wines of Santorini are represented with over 50 bottles that include recent vintages of monovarietals and also blends with Athiri and/or Aidani (other white grape varieties that thrive in the volcanic Santorini soil). The white wines of Crete are also well represented with such little known varietals as Assyrtiko of Sitia, Vilana, Dafni, Thrapsathyri and Plyto, individually vinified at the Lyrarakis winery plus Malvasia Aromatica and Vidiano from other Cretan producers. Much more unusual are bottles from producers in Paros (Assyrtiko-Malagousia blend from Moraitis), Ikaria (Begleri from Afianes Wines), Lesvos (Kalloniatiko-Fokiano-Muscat-Gdoura blend from Oenophoros Winery) and Robola or Robola based blends from Kephalonia. Additionally, the island of Samos is represented by the sweet Muscat of Samos, one of the earliest Moscato d’ Alessandria clones to appear in the Mediterranean.
However, there are also exceptional white bottles from Greek Macedonia; labels that represent such great wineries as Alpha Estate, Gerovassiliou, Ktima Pavlidis, Kir-Yannis, Nikos Lazaridis and Kostas Lazaridis amongst others. There are also beautiful white wines from the vineyards of the Peloponnesus, Thessaly and Thrace.
The white collection is mind boggling!
And the red collection is exceptional as well with excellent bottles from every wine producing area of the mainland plus the islands.
There are long verticals of red wines from the two main red Greek grapes Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko from Macedonia as well as the Peloponnese, as well as blends of both iconic grapes with other Greek or international varieties. Cretan Kotsifali is also present with a number of blends with another Cretan varietal Mandilari and such international grapes as Syrah and Merlot. On the list, I found one of my favorite Cretan wines, a blend of Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah called Nostos from the Manousakis winery. A few years back, on a visit to Crete, I had discovered that winery, had Nostos en-primeur and I was enchanted by it.
Another wine category, dessert wines is also well represented with bottles from both white – the most popular – and red grapes and I would highly recommend the different versions of VinSanto from many Santorini wineries and Mavrodaphne from Mercouri Estate in the Peloponnese, near Patra.
It is worth visiting Molyvos, not only for good food but excellent, little known wines. If you do, ask wine director Kamal Kouiri to recommend what to have with your dishes. You will not be disappointed!
© December 2014 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.