Take a Trip Beyond the Taverna: Reinterpreting the Greek Lexicon

Onera

Two Stars

222 West 79th Street

(between Amsterdam and Broadway)

212-873-0200

Dress: Casual

Lighting: Soft

Noise Level: High but not unbearable

Wine List: A large selection of Greek and California wines

Credit Cards: All major

Price Range: Main courses, $16 to $27

Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Lunch: Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m.

Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.;

Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

It has been said that Greek cuisine is to cuisine what Greek music is to music. In New York, with a couple of exceptions (such as Molyvos and Periyali), Greek restaurants tend to fall into two categories: the rustic souvlaki-and-kebab taverna and the fancy trattoria where fish is displayed on ice before your eyes and sold by the expensive pound.

Onera, tucked away in the basement of a town house on 79th Street and Broadway, bills itself as a Greek restaurant, but it fits neither category. Nor is it like any Greek restaurant I’ve been to anywhere. Chef and owner Michael Psilakis has reinvented and deconstructed the cuisine, giving Greek dishes a modern twist. Like other New York chefs before him have done with American, Asian, Italian and even French food, he takes the ingredients and seasonings as his inspiration and runs with them.

His cooking bounces adventurously around the Greek lexicon. Instead of stuffed grape leaves and taramasalata to start off your dinner, there are raw meze, otherwise fashionably known as “crudo.” They arrive lined up on small, white rectangular plates: yellowtail with green olives; sea scallops in a yogurt-cucumber sauce with pickled fennel and anise leaves; plump sea urchins on thin slices of pickled beet with a delicate fondue made with haloumi, a soft mozzarella-like cheese. Veal carpaccio is topped with tuna tartare, bottarga and fried capers in a tuna-garlic sauce, a clever riff on vitello tonatto.

Upper West Siders, whose list of great local restaurants is famously short, have taken to Onera with a passion. I ran into a painter in the small anteroom by the bar one night. “I made a vow never to go to a restaurant that was underground,” he said, “but I’ve been here five times in the past two weeks.” He lives on 110th Street. That night, the small dining room was packed with customers whose determination to enjoy themselves was equaled by the good nature and friendliness of the attractive staff, who are also extremely helpful about Onera’s wine list. There are many interesting Greek wines that will prove a revelation to those for whom the standard drink with their moussaka is a bottle of retsina.

The space now housing Onera used to be 222, and the dark wood-paneled dining room of that previous tenant has been transformed, painted bright white and navy blue, evocative of Greek islands, with spiky gold modern chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. It’s loud but not unbearably so, and if you are desperate for quiet, you can ask to be seated away from the action in a small room with a table for four off the hallway.

Onera means “dreams” in Greek, and our first taste, a “gift from the chef,” transported us accordingly. It was a wonderful lemony, salty, squeaky sheep and goat cheese fried in a lovely olive oil and topped with thin strips of arugula. It arrived with a sliced baguette instead of pita, and dollops of purées variously made with white beans and garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and olives.

Eating the light, crisp fried calamari inspired dreams of idling under an umbrella on a Mediterranean beach. They came with fried artichokes and black olives “three ways”: cured, in black olive oil, and in a nicely acidic remoulade. Spoonfuls of crispy bacalao got three toppings: tomato and green onion, olive and fennel, artichoke and leeks. Grilled black mission figs were wrapped in a crispy layer of prosciutto and filled with kopanisti, a soft blue sheep’s-milk cheese from Greece.

Throughout the evening, the chef himself, sporting a shaved head and a small, close black beard, passed from time to time through the dining room, shaking hands with customers as though they were old friends.

Last time I had moussaka on the West Side was at one of those Greek places near the theater district (the Acropolis, I believe), where you helped yourself from a steam table in the back. You wouldn’t recognize the moussaka at Onera. It’s made with braised goat, eggplant, potato and béchamel sauce piled up like a little hamburger, with greens. It was nicely garlicky, but the eggplant was a trifle undercooked.

Poached, seared veal arrived in a lemony broth with spinach, white beans and manouri cheese, a sheep’s-milk cheese that’s like feta, but milder. A grilled loin of lamb, crusted with sun-dried tomatoes, was perfectly cooked in medium-rare slices (as requested) with tzatziki, a yogurt-cucumber dill sauce, and chickpeas.

Mr. Psilakis gets a little heady with the grilled branzino, which he tops with a trendy foamy avgolemono sauce. Halibut, crusted with mint and pinenuts in a ragu of spicy lamb sausage, fennel and manila clams, was also a lovely combination.

For dessert, the baklava was—not surprisingly—unrecognizable. It was made like a napoleon, with puff pastry layered with marsala cream and spiced walnuts—light and not too sweet. Ice creams and sorbets, which came with all the desserts, were stellar, and included flavors such as prickly pear, pomegranate, toasted sesame and chocolate. The Valrhôna chocolate cake with halva truffle was superb. So was the ravani, which consisted of an orange-blossom-honey-soaked cake, orange mascarpone, candied orange and a rich triple orange sorbet. At the end of dinner, the bill arrived with a plate of traditional Greek butter-and-walnut cookies.

“Did you like it?” asked the bartender as we passed him on our way out.

We certainly did. And those of you who live on the East Side will be glad to learn that Mr. Psilakis is planning to open a restaurant in your neighborhood next spring.

Take a Trip Beyond the Taverna:  Reinterpreting the Greek Lexicon