505 Columbus Avenue, New York NY 10024 (at 84th Street; map); 212-873-0200; kefirestaurant.com
Service: Friendly, fast, and accomodating
Setting: Large bi-level space with outdoor seating when the weather warms up
Compare It To: Molyvos, Pylos
Must-Haves: Greek Cobb salad, Spreads, lentil soup, spinach salad, yogurt
What You'll Spend: $15 for soup and salad or soup and sandwich combo, tax, and tip (or $10 if you adopt one my crafty ordering strategies)
When chef Mike Psilakis and his business partner, Donatella Arpaia, moved Kefi from the smallish, cramped, subterranean space on West 79th Street to a multilevel dining area on Columbus Avenue and 84th Street with more than 200 seats, he promised to take reservations, open for lunch, and maintain Kefi's downright cheap prices.
And like the most effective politicians, he actually made good on all those promises. The prices are still extremely low, reservations are taken, and Kefi is open for lunch. My wife and I went for dinner with friends at the new Kefi a few months ago. The food was as good as ever (I like salt as much as Psilakis), but the new Kefi was even louder than the old one, which was no slouch in the din department.
A few weeks ago my wife met some friends for lunch at Kefi, and she reported that the restaurant at midday was an oasis of relative calm and serenity. Even more important, she raved about the food.
Egged on by Vicky (it's always good for a marriage to heed your spouse's words), Robyn and I made our way to the new Kefi for a couple of leisurely lunches to see if we could corroborate Vicky's findings.
It is substantially quieter and calmer at lunchtime at Kefi, mostly because every seat is not filled at all times. I noticed old friends meeting for lunch, pairs of moms with children in strollers, and the unmistakable sound of freelancers getting out of their apartments to relieve their self-imposed isolation with some last-minute scheduled socializing or networking.
At dinner I wouldn't think of ordering the Greek spreads as your entrée. But at lunch it makes perfect sense. The tart tzataiki made with wonderfully thick Greek yogurt, house-made taramasolata (carp roe) fancifully called "caviar" on the menu; melt-in-your-mouth grilled and roasted eggplant, and a hummuslike chickpea spread come with warm pita triangles. At $9.95 the spreads and pita make a seriously delicious inexpensive lunch. And if you order more pita triangles, the spreads spread could actually feed two.
Soups, Salads, Sandwiches
Though the lunch menu is pretty extensive and features many of the items found on the dinner menu, the heart of the lunch menu are the soup-and-salad and soup-and-sandwich combinations.
The soup and half sandwich combo ($9.95) is a bargain. The flavor of the lentil soup is amped up by optional lamb stock and graviera cheese. A white bean soup is no less flavorful, thanks to its leek, spinach, and tomato base.
Among the half sandwich options the chicken souvlaki ($11.95) is not terribly interesting (photo here), so go for the pork souvlaki ($13.95). The pork is served ever so slightly pink and has plenty of porky flavor, but it can be dry. No matter. The tsatziki that's served with any sandwich here rectifies all.
The half-sandwich and soup combo comes with terrific dark Russet potato chips dotted with fresh herbs (above) and a small Greek salad.
The soup and half Greek Cobb salad ($11.95) is a killer combo. What's in a Greek Cobb salad? Chicken, apple-smoked bacon (called lountza on the menu), feta instead of blue cheese, onion, peppers, a hard-boiled egg, sun-dried tomato instead of chopped fresh tomatoes (an unnecessary substitution to me), and a yogurt vinaigrette instead of a Thousand Island–like dressing. I doubt that you can find this salad anywhere in Greece, but who cares? It's a terrific salad.
There's another insanely flavorful salad that's available on the soup and half-salad menu ($9.95), Psilakis' take on a spinach salad: spinach, sun-dried tomato, the same applewood-smoked bacon, hard-boiled egg, Graviera cheese, and crisp shallots--all in a smoked-tomato vinaigrette flecked with more of that delicious bacon. Sounds great, doesn't it? Tastes even better.
The Kefi Burger
Because no lunch menu is complete these days in New York without a burger, you can find one Greek-style ($9.95) at Kefi. But instead of making it with lamb, Psilakis uses beef. It's tasty enough, with its manouri cheese and sun-dried-tomato topping, but give me Psilakis' killer lamb burger and chickpea fries at Anthos any day.
Falafel Is to Be Avoided
If you're looking for your falafel fix here, you will be disappointed at Kefi. They serve soggy oversized (halfway between a golf ball and a tennis ball) chickpea, eggplant, and bulgur fritters that have good flavor but are all wrong texture-wise.
Eat Lunch at Kefi Even Cheaper
Now here come some clever, super-cheap ways to eat lunch at Kefi. Order the light if falling-apart meatballs, which come in a sauce of roasted garlic, olives, and stewed tomatoes ($6.25). Take two pieces of the fine crusty rustic bread that arrives at your table when you arrive, and spoon two of the four meatballs that come in an order on to one of the bread slices. There are enough meatballs to make two of these babies, so if you choose, you can end up spending ten bucks for two people for lunch. Now that's cheap.
The mac and cheese ($8.95) comes in a moat-sized dish that this papacito couldn't possibly finish (it's the new me, remember). Not that I didn't want to. It has lots of crusty brown crunchies on top; it's made with feta, mansouri (a crumbly mild, creamy cheese), and the aforementioned graviera, and has just to up its richness quotient. Inside you'll find plenty of bechamel sauce.
For dessert go for two scoops of yogurt served with kataifi (shredded wheat), almonds, quince, honey, and mint ($4.95). The yogurt is the thick and creamy and tart Greek yogurt made in Canada (it's the same yogurt served at Milos), and, man, is it good. My guess is you could stick an oversized serving spoon in it and it would not tip over.
Galaktobouriko, semolina custard-filled phyllo dough topped by orange spoon fruit ($5.95), is a well-executed classic Greek dessert, but it somehow leaves me cold.
So for a relaxed, quiet, fine, and cheap lunch, head to Kefi. The only thing you'll be missing is the dinner din.