The new fortress known as MP Taverna sits on the corner of Ditmars and 32nd Street, eager patrons spilling out of the bar and onto the sidewalk even though the restaurant opened just a few weeks ago. The second floor is a little more hushed, with handsome industrial design and brushed brass lamp shades dangling over each table. MP Taverna can seat 150 patrons, not counting an outdoor dining area along the sidewalk.
At the helm of this new culinary castle is distinguished chef, producer, James Beard Award nominee and author Michael Psilakis.
“We hope that people just look at us like a Greek brasserie,” he said. “The whole focus of this restaurant really is to sort of demystify what Greek food is to people who don’t understand it. We’re trying to take things that are very recognizable and just call them something that you can recognize as well.”
Take, for instance, the meatballs, or, as they are listed on the menu, keftedes. They arrive in an iron skillet bubbling with a tangy tomato sauce and glistening with olives in shades of purple and green. The tender meat is fragrant with dill, mint and lots and lots of garlic.
The exquisitely tender octopus comes nestled on a mound of chickpeas. Enormous, grilled, head-on prawns are served under a creamy bed of Greek spinach and lemon rice pilaf.
A refreshing spin on bulgur salad is studded with crunchy pistachios, tender dates and juicy pomegranate seeds that explode between your teeth. Your fork involuntarily keeps going back for more.
The menu is full of excellent surprises like Cypriot lamb sausage sizzling in a skillet and scallops glistening with brown butter and dried cherries.
So what inspired this inventive take on classic Greek flavors?
“We aren’t just Greek,” Psilakis explained. “We’re Greek-Americans. The biggest difference for me, really, is that being born here and being able to perceive the food that I grew up eating through our new country’s eyes allows us to take liberties with things that a traditional Greek wouldn’t.”
The paella was inspired by youvetsi, a very traditional dish made with lamb and orzo in a clay pot. Psilakis took the idea of a youvetsi and playfully juxtaposed it with the idea of paella. Lamb sausage and orzo replace chorizo and rice.
“It’s not a dish my mother would even understand,” the chef chuckled. “It doesn’t belong in the Greek lexicon of food, and yet when you eat it, it reminds you of Greek food.”
“To a certain degree, Astoria allows you to cook food that can only be recognized in certain venues,” he continued. “Astoria is one of those venues. There is enough of Greece here that if you are cooking [with Greek flavors], there’s going to be people who are going to be coming who are going to understand the beauty of that thing that brings them back to childhood or to a village. That, to me, is exciting. That, to me, is soulful.”
31-29 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria
-BY BRADLEY HAWKS
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