In what other age could one of the best high-end Greek restaurants in New York, open and go almost totally unnoticed?
That is the perplexing question at Nerai, which opened in May 2013 in the old Oceana space, and has attracted no professional reviews that I can find, except from John Mariani in Huffington Post, who posted a rave three months ago.
The opening certainly was publicized, although perhaps not as well as it could be. Did it begin so poorly that the first critics to visit found it not worth writing about? Or did they just assume that a white tablecloth restaurant on East 54th Street is unimportant by default? I fear it could be the latter.
I am not going to pronounce Nerai the best modern Greek restaurant in New York. That judgment would require more visits and deeper exploration than my time and money will allow. But after one visit I can certainly pronounce it a candidate.
Admittedly, there’s not a lot of competition since Michael Psilakis’s Anthos bit the dust. Molyvos is reliable, but not the standout it once was, although it has the city’s best Greek wine list. Milos could be better, but I’ve never been (GQ’s Alan Richman loved it in 2010). Thalassa is an old favorite of mine, but it gets very little critical attention; it is still very good, but below its peak.
Which brings us back to Nerai, which feels immediately cozy and elegant. A series of rooms in the bi-level space is decked out in soothing, vaguely nautical themes. In the room we were in, on the ground floor, the walls are lined with white muslin gauzes, pleated to resemble sails.
You won’t get out cheaply. Starters and salads range from $15–27, composed entrées $26–56 (just one dish under $30), sides $10. There’s also whole fish and seafood, $33–60 per pound, a notoriously tricky format, as you don’t quite know what you’re paying until the bill arrives.
The house cocktails are $16 apiece. I didn’t take good notes, but between three of us we tried five of them, and I recall being pleased. The restaurant transferred our bar tab to the table, always a good way to start.
Although the food and cocktail menus are online, the wine list is not. I recall thinking that a restaurant of this quality ought to have a deeper list (both at the higher and lower ends), and that more of the labels ought to be Greek. Mariani counted 137 labels, about 40 percent of them Greek. We ordered a Katogi sparkling wine ($66), which was not unfairly priced given the retail prices I can find online. The staff kept it on ice and re-charged our glasses attentively.
We began with a trio of appetizers, the Calamari ($18; above right), Saganaki ($15; below left) and Spinach Pie ($16; below right), all first-rate.
We ordered a Whole Red Snapper for the three of us ($119 for 3.5 pounds), shown as it came out of the kitchen (below left) and as plated (below right).
This was a wonderful, simple preparation, although (as I feared) a larger fish than the three of us really needed. A 2.5-pounder would have sufficed.
The whole fish come à la carte, so you have to augment your order with side dishes. We ordered two, when one would have been enough. If you’re going to spend $10 on $2 worth of produce, the Brussels Sprouts (above right) are a better bet than the Seasonal Vegetables (above left).
We weren’t going to order dessert, but the management comped one anyway, and it was a winner: the Lavender Mousse (left; normally $12), an infused yogurt served with pineapple carpaccio, lavender honey, and caramelized pecans.
There are co-chefs: Ioannis Markadakis from Vezene in Athens; and Chris Christou, whose CV claims stints at Buddakan, Per Se, Corton, and Ai Fiori. They have their act together. I am always wary of making claims on small sample sizes, but on the strength of this visit, Nerai certainly seems worthy of far more attention.
Nerai (55 E. 54th St. between Park and Madison Avenues, East Midtown)
Food: Modern Greek, very well executed
Service: Polished and attentive, though prone to upselling
Ambiance: A serene and elegant nautically-themed dining room