Entries in Kefi (4)


The Payoff: Kefi

Yesterday, Frank Bruni dropped a star on the underwhelming Kefi. No review better demonstrates the debasement of the New York Times star system. One star is supposed to mean “good,” but in Frank’s hands it usually means “mediocre”:

A friend and frequent dining companion often complains of palate fatigue, that deadening of all response when too many of a restaurant’s dishes have too little nuance and a surfeit of the same bold — even bullying — notes.

During some meals at Kefi, a madly popular Greek restaurant on the Upper West Side, what I experienced was more like palate mononucleosis… .

The all-Greek wine list is as price-sensitive as the food, and the atmosphere is pleasant, if Greek-restaurant predictable: a white-and-blue color scheme, decorative ceramics, that sort of thing. Try not to sit at a table by the bar, where the human traffic is most snarled.

And know that the scale and manner of the cooking Mr. Psilakis is doing here differ from what he’s done elsewhere around town — or what he did at the original Kefi. There, many of the same dishes were executed with more precision and restraint. It was a lesser stage, but it was a greater one.ed to mean “good,” but Bruni constantly gives it out to mediocre places:

We and Eater both took the one-star bet, winning $4 on our hypothetical one-dollar bets.

Eater   NYJ
Bankroll $116.50   $137.67
Gain/Loss +4.00   +4.00
Total $120.50   $141.67
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 54–25   56–23

Rolling the Dice: Kefi

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Kefi, the new Michael Psilakis/Donatella Arpaia Greek dining barn on the Upper West Side. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 20-1
One Star: 4-1 √√
Two Stars:
Three Stars: 55-1
Four Stars: 50,000-1

The Skinny: Frank Bruni clearly has a hard-on for this place. For a guy who has never taken much to blogging, his breathless panting over the new Kefi has been remarkable. And he really loves Michael Psilakis, having given him two stars on four occasions (Onera, Dona, Anthos, and Mia Dona). We are on vacation this week, so we are too lazy to insert links to those reviews, so you’ll have to google them yourself.

Anyhow, you can bet that Bruni walked into Kefi wanting desperately to love it. Nevertheless, we agree with Eater that to the extent there are “rules” for getting two stars, Kefi breaks an awful lot of them. Bruni has been less inclined to follow those unwritten rules than his predecessors, but he tends to break them for earnest “family” places, not for the kind of assembly-line food served at Kefi.

I would add that we hated Kefi, though that is not influencing our judgment one bit.

Eater mentions the Ssäm Bar exception, where there are currently three NYT stars, despite a zero-star atmosphere and one-star service. Despite our occasional carping, we do know Ssäm Bar. Ssäm Bar is a friend of ours. Kefi, you are no Ssäm Bar. We suspect, or at least hope, that Bruni will recognize that Kefi is not going to feature the kind of constant innovation that could justify a two or three-star rating for a path-breaking restaurant like Ssäm Bar. The two just aren’t comparable.

The Bet: We agree with Eater that Frank Bruni will award one star to Kefi.





[Kreiger via Eater]

If you’re an ethical food blogger—don’t snicker, that’s not an oxymoron—what do you do when a restaurant in its first week is a disaster? Do you assume the problems will eventually be worked out? Or do you call it like it is?

As of today, the new Kefi is a disaster—a blunder by two smart people who should have known better. The question is, how much can they improve? We figure that Michael Psilakis and Donatella Arpaia—chef and restauranteur respectively—will do their best to get it right. Yet, much of what is wrong stems from a misguided concept that is not easily fixed.

Let’s be blunt: this is their third restaurant together, and more are coming. Psilakis and Arpaia were both in the house on Saturday night, but that won’t last long. After the critics have come through, they’ll both be spending their time elsewhere.

In at least 10 visits to her various restaurants, this is the first time I’ve ever seen Arpaia. And in my experience, her restaurants do not improve with time. She has too many of them, along with other projects, to give the loving attention they need, and apparently she cannot find, or has not found, the right staff to manage them in her stead.

Here’s the background: Psilakis opened Onera on the Upper West Side, a Greek take on haute cuisine that critics liked, but wasn’t suited to the neighborhood. He turned it into an inexpensive casual place called Kefi, which didn’t take reservations or even credit cards. Meanwhile, the haute Greek idea was reborn as Anthos in a fancier midtown location, earning a Michelin star in its first year. Those aren’t the only restaurants Psilakis and Arpaia have been involved in, or rumored to be working on, but we’ll leave the history lesson there.

Kefi was a big hit. We were impressed. So were the critics. Peter Meehan filed a rave in $25 & Under. There was lots of love on the BruniBlog. But Kefi had a problem: it had only 70 seats, and waits to get in were interminable. So Psilakis and Arpaia decided to move several blocks away, where they could triple the space, and where they could finally accept reservations and credit cards.

I appreciate that Psilakis and Arpaia hated turning customers away. Yet, there was a grave risk that, in moving to a space 200% larger, the concept would lose its charm. That is exactly what has happened: stadium dining at its worst. The new Kefi feels like a theater district barn, geared to churn out hundreds of meals at a breakneck pace. The only difference is that Kefi doesn’t slow down at 8:00.

There are four rooms on two levels, each with its own design personality. (In this, it resembles Mia Dona, another Psilakis/Arpaia property.) This choice was supposed to “keep Kefi’s intimate appeal,” but it doesn’t work that way. The host station is inexplicably near the back of the first floor, so you have to navigate the clotted bar just to ask for your table.

This unfortunate intersection is adjacent to the kitchen, so runners with food and busboys with dirty dishes have to fight their way through the same space where diners not yet seated are forced to congregate. Staff and customers must also share a narrow winding staircase that leads to two downstairs dining rooms, and also to the restrooms. Anyone who works here will get plenty of exercise. This restaurant really needed a dumbwaiter.

Our adventure did not start well: they had lost our reservation. “We’ll accommodate you,” our hostess generously offered, after conferring with Ms. Arpaia. A better response might have been, “We apologize for misplacing your reservation.” I know that customers are sometimes mistaken or even deceitful about bookings they claim to have made, but a new and obviously disorganized restaurant might want to consider giving the benefit of the doubt.

Kefi was packed when we arrived, and it was packed when we left. It had the usual problems of a restaurant suddenly serving triple the number of guests. Runners were frequently confused about where to deliver food. This happened not just at our table, but everywhere. Most dishes came out not quite warm enough. This, too, happened repeatedly. Kefi is tightly packed, so it was not difficult to overhear the complaints. Plates were dropped off without silverware. Appetizer plates were cleared while leaving dirty silverware behind.

House-made sausage ($7.50; above left) was the best thing we had: tender, a bit spicy, and served at the right temperature. Greek salad ($6.50; above right) was pedestrian. Meatballs ($6.25; above right) had potential, but they were served lukewarm.

For the main course, I ordered the braised lamb shank ($15.95), as I had done at the former location. The plating last time (above left) is more careful, with the bed of orzo covering the plate and flecks of green on the shank itself. The version of it served on Saturday (above right) was a much lazier try, with the food carelessly dumped on the plate. The lamb shank itself was just fine, but with sufficient brazing any meat naturally would be.

Moussaka ($11.95; above left) and  Creamed Spinach ($5.50; above right) were both average. Neither one was served quite warm enough.

Dessert was alleged to be Sesame Sorbet ($3.95; above left), though it sure tasted like ice cream to us. Whatever it was, it was too tart.

If there’s a bright spot at Kefi, it’s the all-Greek wine list. There are tasting notes for each bottle, which is thoughtful of them, as these appellations will be utterly unfamiliar to most diners. Many bottles are very reasonably priced For $48 I was pleased with the 2001 Grande Reserve Naoussa Boutari (above right). If it were French, restaurants would sell it for twice as much.

Prices remain the saving grace at Kefi. We had three appetizers, two entrées, a side dish and a bottle of wine for just $105.60, before tax and tip. That’s a bargain by today’s standards, though it is still no excuse for serving lukewarm food in a charmless atmosphere. The new place still has Kefi’s name, but none of its appeal, other than low prices.

Ms. Arpaia came downstairs multiple times during our visit. But we never noticed her stopping at any table to ask how it was going. “She doesn’t look happy,” my girlfriend said. We passed her coming down as we were leaving. You’d think she might have said, “Thanks for coming.” Naturally, she did not.

Perhaps Psilakis and Arpaia will be able to whip this place into shape, but I doubt it. They have too many other projects, and too many of the problems are design flaws that are virtually impossible to fix. Even if they ace it, this place cannot duplicate the original Kefi’s charms. They should not have sullied its good name.

I am not going to pronounce Kefi a failure after just six nights of service. This chef and this owner have earned the right to prove they can do better. They have their work cut out for them.

Kefi (505 Columbus Avenue between 84th–85th Streets, Upper West Side)

Food: good, when it is served warm enough
Service: confused
Atmosphere: a dining stadium
Overall: incomplete





Note: Click here for a review of Kefi in its current location. This is a review in its former location.

I was a big fan of Onera, Michael Psilakis’s haute Greek restaurant on the Upper West Side. It was one of the few very good restaurants, in a neighborhood where great ones are in short supply. But I guess there’s a reason why the Upper West Side isn’t a fine dining destination: yuppies with strollers prefer casual cafés and take-out.

The new interior

Cuttlefish, Spinach & Manouri

Braised Lamb Shank, Orzo, Root Vegetables

Walnut Cake, Walnut Ice Cream

So Psilakis converted the formal Onera to the casual Kefi. Anyone who visited Onera will recognize the space. But the white tablecloths are gone, and the décor is much more informal. Reservations are not accepted.

Prices are astonishingly low, with appetizers $4.50 – 9.95, pastas $9.95 – 11.95, main courses $13.95 – 15.95, and desserts $4.95 – 7.95. Most wines by the glass are only $6, and cocktails are only $7. (I can’t remember the last time I had a cocktail below $10.)

Even at these prices, a three-course dinner for two, including drinks, is likely to go above $100 with tax and tip. So we were irritated to find that Kefi doesn’t take credit cards, and we noted other patrons taken by surprise. If McDonald’s can take credit cards nowadays, why can’t Kefi?

I started with the Cuttlefish ($8.95), which were grilled, stuffed with spinach, and perched atop warm tomatoes. It was an ample portion, and impressive at the price, as it must be a fairly labor-intensive dish.

For the entree, I had the Braised Lamb Shank ($15.95), which was just as tender and flavorful as you could ask for. It compared favorably to versions of the same dish that upscale Greek restaurants sell for twice as much.

I was also quite pleased with dessert, a moist walnut cake with walnut ice cream.

We were sad to see Onera go, but there’s no denying Kefi is more in keeping with the area. It’s doing a brisk, if not crowded, walk-in business, and also offers take-out. I hope it survives and thrives.

Meanwhile, the concept of Onera remains very much alive. Psilakis is planning a similar restaurant called Anthos at 36 West 52nd Street near Fifth Avenue, a neighborhood where high-end Greek dining should find a much warmer reception.

Update: Kefi will be moving to 505 Columbus Avenue near 84th Street, sometime around July 2008. The new space will seat 200 and will accept both reservations and credit cards (the current restaurant takes neither). Chef Michael Psilakis hopes to open a new restaurant in the existing space — “something I haven’t done before.” Psilakis gave the exclusive to a practically breathless Frank Bruni, who loves the place, although he never bothered to review it.

Kefi (222 W. 79th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave., Upper West Side)

Food: *½
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *½