Last week, famed restaurateur Donatella Arpaia (of Donatella and David Burke) and James Beard Rising Chef of the Year Michael Psilakis opened the second iteration of their UWS taverna, Kefi. What seems like years ago, I'd sent a writer to review the original space--her review was filled with raves that made me regret passing on the free meal. So when the opportunity came to try out the new spot, and in its opening week, I jumped at it.
I'll put this out there: this isn't the most positive review. So why I am bothering to make you read it? Because inevitably, you'll hear something, you'll read something, you'll see some pictures, and your curiosity will perk. So do yourself a favor and get the full disclosure.
Kefi is one of the first Modern Greek restaurants in NYC to receive the kind of praise that it did, and accordingly, Executive Chef Psilakis has garnered a bit of attention for bringing awareness to a less explored cuisine. Combined with Donatella's front-of-house and managerial experience, it's been a much-hyped recipe for success. That's why I was shocked to have to wait 15 minutes for a waiter to even say hello, much less bring me some water.
Alas, appetizers (or meze) came and went, and most of them without much to remark about. Meatballs, our neighboring diners told us, were not to be missed, but they proved uninspired, albiet with a lovely, soft texture. A warm feta cheese sounded delightful, but the quality was poor--far too salty and overwhelming for a Greek restaurant that claims such prowess. But not all of them fell flat. My dining companions raved about the octopus (which was tasty, but generally not my thing) while I found the mussels, tossed in white wine, olives, and feta, to be a refreshing variation on an otherwise standard dish (even if they were a bit small).
A middle course of sheep's milk ravioli with brown butter and sage seemed difficult to mess up, as anything with brown butter and sage is bound to be pretty delicious. As expected, they were perfectly fine, but again, nothing to write home about. They were missing POW! and KAZAAM! and all the wonderful things you're meant to find in the cuisine of a James Beard award winner.
Main courses proved to be a bit more successful. A dish of baked shrimp with orzo and feta was flavorful and came nicely presented; lamb (after being sent back for being far overcooked) came out tender and nicely seasoned. Neither was incredibly memorable, but both were good dishes especially considering the low cost--nothing on the menu is more than $16. Though I didn't taste it, my companion's chicken souvlaki seemed to be the best dish of the night, oozing with juices and topped with grilled veggies and spices. I might have to return to try it.
At one point, the service became a comical disaster. 5--no, 6!--waiters brought the wrong dishes to our tables, having goofed on table numbers and poorly communicated with the kitchen. We placed bets on how many more would make the same gaff, but then caught Donatella to give her a fair chance to make right. She did, and our hopes for Kefi's future brightened.
The folks at Kefi have a beautiful space, humbly decorated with Grecian blue window shutters and traditional blue-and-white dishes on the walls (too pretty to be thrown around and broken like in an authentic taverna). This is modern Greek, and the decor sure says it, but the food has a long way to come.
I visited Kefi on day 3 of service and fully accept that they will need time to grow into their new skin. But please, do yourselves a favor, and wait at least a few weeks before following the trend here--if I find myself in the neighborhood in a few months time, I'll definitely give it another shot in hopes of finding that the kitchen has picked up with more daring, and, dare I say it, a completely new waitstaff to boot.
photo via eater.com