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"We're not trying to be a typical Greek taverna," Michael Psilakis says, which is why his newly opened MP Taverna is so unlike its Astoria neighbors. "I still think it's Greek, but my mother didn't cook anything like this." So that means youvetsi, the clay pot braise typically based on lamb and orzo, is reformulated as a braised lamb shank lightened with spinach ($23). Roasted and grilled octopus ($11) is served uncharacteristically with yogurt and chickpeas. And a bulgar salad ($8.50) might be one of the menu's most exciting items.
The first New York City location of the MP Taverna franchise (there are also restaurants in Roslyn, Long Island and Irvington, Westchester) has a large footprint on Ditmars Boulevard, with 150 seats across two floors and plans for another 80 outdoors in the coming months. The MP feel is more casual than Psilakis' other restaurants, with a bar dominating the downstairs dining room and value-priced small and large plates that are easy to share.
Why the casual direction for the TV star, cookbook author, and New York's most celebrated Greek chef? It's a shift Psilakis has observed in himself over the years. "I used to cook so that you were looking at the food on the table instead of the person across from you. But where I am now, food is not the art form I thought it was. It's a catalyst to create memories. The food has to mean something."
So the menu at MP Taverna is a collection of dishes Psilakis has accumulated through the years, both traditional and modern takes. Souvlaki ($14) comes the typical way: brined pork tenderloin marinated in oil and herbs, then grilled and wrapped in pita with tzatziki. But pan-roasted scallops with capers and dried cherries, or bulgar salad with pistachio and pomegranate, are decidedly Psilakis spins.
Though Psilakis never lived in Astoria, he came frequently as a child to connect with the Greek scene. This was, of course, when the neighborhood was more monochromatically Greek—as if on cue while he spoke, two sari-clad women walked by the open window. But the hardcore community remains, and when I ask him why Astoria for his first NYC location, Psilakis asks back, "where else?"
Psilakis doesn't see MP Taverna as a direct competitor to neighborhood icons like Taverna Kyclades right across the street. Nor does he think the restaurant is a statement about what kind of dining is "better." It's merely his attempt to bridge the gap between American eating and the ethnic ghetto that Greek cooking still, to an extent, finds itself in. "The Italians were very good at this...now some people think 'parmesan' is an English word. Not enough people think of Greek as everyday food."
To aid in that end, MP Taverna has a full line of spirits (over 120 whiskies), an approachable wine list, and 20 beers on tap, mostly American, a few brewed right in Queens. The restaurant has also just started its late nights: 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 12 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, with a pared down menu of sandwiches and shareable mezze.
On the other hand, if you want a more old school meal, call ahead at least five days in advance and you can get a whole lamb, kid goat, or suckling pig cooked for your table.