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Monday
Dec052011

Loi

Note: Loi closed in July 2014, supposedly because the restaurant’s owners could not reach a lease agreement with the landlord. I found the very large space nearly empty on both of my visits, and most of the city’s main critics never reviewed it. A meatery called Lincoln Square Steak replaced it.

*

Compass was the restaurant with more lives than a cat. Between 2002 and 2011, it chewed up and spitted out at least six executive chefs. Most of them were pretty good, but the place never developed a following.

Finally, the owners gave up on the name, and brought in Maria Loi as a partner to run the place. Known as the “Greek Martha Stewart,” she has written several cookbooks and, until recently, hosted a cooking show in Greece. She also owns a restaurant on one of the islands, produces a weekly magazine and a series of DVDs, designs a line of appliances and dinnerware, partners in a clothing business, and has also lobbied on behalf of firms like Texaco and Nokia.

I’ve no doubt that Ms. Loi has a talent for breaking down Greek cooking to a series of easy steps comprehensible to the amateur—like a Rachael Ray, Giada DeLaurentiis, or yes, Martha Stewart. None of this implies a talent for running a restaurant.

Hardly anyone believes that chefs like Daniel Boulud or Jean-Georges Vongerichten actually cook the food at the restaurants named for them. But they are, at least, full-time professional chefs, and have been for their entire adult lives. Ms. Loi isn’t even that. She’s the front for an operation that will be run (mostly) by others.

The restaurant—called Loi, naturally—re-opened in late October after a two-month renovation. The floor layout is pretty much the same as it was at Compass, but it’s clad in a handsome Aegean skin, with comfortable seats, crisp white tablecloths, and a regimented, well-dressed staff.

Five weeks in, Ms. Loi is an active presence in the restaurant, highly visible on both of my visits. (She told The Times she intends to be here “24/7.”) She spends most of her time making rounds in the dining room, saying hello at least briefly to all her guests, and chatting at some length with those she recognizes.

Not that the rounds are at all demanding. This restaurant may have the same problem Compass did: staying full. The space is huge. The main dining room seats 125. There is also a spacious bar and lounge, and three private dining rooms seat up to 300.

On two weeknights, a week apart, Loi was about 10 or 20 percent full at 6:45 p.m., before I headed over to Lincoln Center. If it does not attract a significant pre-theater following, which it hasn’t so far, I cannot imagine how it will fill up, especially with the more modestly-priced and far better-known Kefi nearby.

Not that Loi is terribly expensive, especially for such an attractive space. Appetizers, soups, and salads are mostly in the mid-teens, entrées mostly in the mid-to-high $20s. Still, diners won’t forgive sloppy execution, and there is some of that.

I’ve no complaint with the ample bread service (above left), but Loi’s version of a Greek Salad, the Horiatiki Loi ($14; above right) was marred by a chalky brick of feta that tasted like it has been cut hours earlier, and left to sit in the fridge. I had hardly blinked before it came out, which makes me suspect they have a bunch of these pre-made.

On my second visit, the kitchen sent out a quartet of stuffed grape leaves (above left) as an amuse-bouche. My girlfriend and I shared the Tirokeftedes ($15; above right), cheese croquettes with baked goat and manouri cheese, with a fig and apricot compote. This was a decent enough appetizer, but like the salad on my prior visit, came out within moments and didn’t seem quite as fresh as it should be.

I wasn’t at all fond of Loi’s Moussaka ($19; above left). The traditional minced mean filling had been ground to where you could almost have sipped it through a straw, and the Bechamel sauce tasted a bit sour.

On my second visit, the entrées were more successful. An ample hunk of salmon ($26; above right) had a rich, smokey flavor. I also liked the Seared Diver Scallops ($28; below left), served in a bright dill sauce with asparagus.

Desserts (above right) were comped, as it appears they are at every table. (We were not given a dessert menu to inspect; they just appeared.) The explanation was a bit difficult to follow. One was a traditional baklava, and I am not sure about the other. Anyhow, they were both very good—perhaps the best part of the meal.

The service was attentive and solicitous, especially in the dining room; less so at the bar. They are a shade over-eager to take your order and get you out the door to a show.

Any neighborhood can use an authentic Greek restaurant that is not as mass-produced as Kefi, but not as outrageously priced as midtown’s Estiatoria Milos. The menu at Koi is a work in progress (there are various recited specials), and so is its execution. Here’s hoping it becomes dependable.

My girlfriend, who did not suffer through my less impressive first visit, enjoyed Loi and would happily go back, and so we will.

Loi (208 W. 70th Street, west of Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side)

Food: ★
Service: ★½
Ambiance: ★★½
Overall: ★

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