Chef Michael Psilakis knows Greek food. As a young, first-generation Greek-American, he avidly learned the traditional recipes, cooking techniques, and preparations that his mother and father had brought with them from their home country of Greece to Long Island, New York. With this strong foundation, Psilakis worked to bring both traditional and modern Greek cooking into New York’s bright food scene spotlight, racking up high honors like Food & Wine’s Best New Chef, and Chef of the Year from Bon Appetit and Esquire, while opening well-loved and highly acclaimed restaurants like Kefi, FISHTAG, and three locations of MP Taverna. The most recent of those three MP Taverna locations is right on Astoria’s own Greek-American Main Street, Ditmars Boulevard.
Chef Psilakis also knows Astoria. He grew up coming to Astoria all the time, because Astoria was – and still is – the Greek cultural hub of New York. And his love of the neighborhood never faded. In his recent Guide to Greek Food and Ingredients in New York City penned for Serious Eats, he revealed that he scours the shops of Astoria in search of the best and most authentic Greek ingredients to use in his recipies. And it turns out that he shops where we Astorians shop, and loves the places that we love, including Titan Foods, Euro Market, Plaza Meat Market, Artopolis Bakery, and the Souvlaki King of Astoria. On his Twitter page, Psilakis happily shouts out local business and celebrates the fact that Astoria’s own SingleCut Beer is now on tap at MP Taverna.
The first thing you’ll notice about MP Taverna Astoria is the impressive design. The ground level is wide open and windowed, an invitation to wander in off the street, and take a seat at the long, cool marbled bar stocked with an impressive list of over 50 wines by the glass and over 70 beers, tapped and bottled. The second level is a study in contrast, with plush leather chairs, chandeliers affixed over each table, and a more intimate, even romantic atmosphere. This is a place for good long talks over the 120 plus whiskies that grace the menu. One hundred additional seats will be added when a patio opens up for the warmer months.
While the atmosphere at MP Taverna is everything a New York restaurant needs to attract a following, the food takes us right back to Chef Psilakis’ Greek roots and to the food roots of our neighborhood, Astoria, albeit with a modern twist. This week I had the honor of stopping by to sample some of the fare, and the short story is that it is fantastic. The Bulgar Salad, a signature at Chef’s Psilakis’ restaurants was a standout, combining the hearty grain with dates, almonds, pomegranate, olives, red onion and pistachio to create a bright, refreshing, surprising first course. The crisp fresh Tzatziki, topped with fresh grilled vegetables, and accompanied by fresh, warm pita triangles is easily my new favorite Tzatziki in a town that is well known for this Mezze. Another Astoria favorite, the spiraling tentacles of the Grilled Octopus, gorgeously presented, achieve new heights at MP Taverna, with a perfect char, a slight chew, and plenty of citrus and olive oil. The fresh Scallops, with cauliflower, sweet dried cherries and brown butter was another surprising, delicious dish.
And dessert is hardly an afterthought at MP Taverna. We loved the traditional Greek sweet, Galaktoboureko, that was given a new flair with a thin bruléed crust topped with sweet fresh berries and tart, juicy grapefruit. The silky smooth Greek Yogurt with fresh fruit, honey and slivered pistachios was a light, fun, and deceptively easy dessert – there is no way I will ever prepare Greek yogurt this well at home. A warm chocolate walnut cake with vanilla ice cream rounded out the desserts we tried, and was also really incredibly tasty in a simple, comforting, straightforward way.
Perhaps the thing I love best about Astoria is the way it stubbornly refuses to purge its people, traditions, and history, and instead it embraces and incorporates them in both traditional and new ways. Chef Psilakis and his latest venture, MP Taverna Astoria, do the same: honoring and keeping alive the past, while challenging us with new twists and creative interpretations. A chef and a neighborhood that keep the past and present close to their heart, must be a perfect pair. Reflecting on the fact that after so much time spent over the years, since youth, in Astoria, Chef Psilakis said he looks out the window and says, I can’t believe this is Ditmars. We can believe it. We’re grateful for it. We’re glad you’re here and that you never left.
MP Taverna – 31-29 Ditmars Blvd, Astoria, NY