31-29 Ditmars Boulevard, Astoria, NY 11105 (at 33rd; map); 718-777-2187; michaelpsilakis.com/mp-taverna/mp-taverna-astoria
Setting: Two-story compound. The ground floor is dominated by the bar and high-top seating; upstairs is more serene and upscale.
Service: Brusque to friendly to obsequious, but more or less helpful. Welcome to Astoria.
Compare To: Taverna Kyclades, Telly's Taverna, Gregory's 26 Corner Taverna
Must-Haves: Bulgar salad, octopus, lamb shank, dumplings
Cost: Small plates $8.50 to $12, sandwiches/burgers $12.50 to $16, mains $15 to $23
Recommendation: Recommended. Modern Greek that respects its elders while raising expectations.
It's summer in Astoria, and anyone who can do so is eating outdoors. The Greek cafes spill out onto sidewalks and the briny funk of grilled octopus creeps down the street.
There's no outdoor seating at MP Taverna yet, but the accordion doors up front are wide open, and a crowd two rows deep lines the bar, drinks in one hand, smoky pita in the other. This is the newest iteration of Michael Psilakis's casual Greek restaurant brand, his first within city limits. When asked why he's come to Astoria of all places, the chef asks back, "Where else?"
In interviews, Psilakis has made clear that MP Taverna features a more visceral, less cerebral approach to Greek food. That doesn't mean the menu is dumbed down or made less "ethnic." It means you're happy that the kitchen is generous with that pita, because those stray licks of olive oil on the plate won't finish themselves.
Let's start with some dips. MP Taverna does takes on hummus with sun-dried tomato and tzatziki with a heavy dose of dill. Both are good, especially the yogurt, which swirls on a spoon like a thicker, less fatty crème fraîche (you should order yogurt everywhere it appears). At $8 each, fluffy grilled pita included, they're pricier than the Astoria standards, but among the best I've had in the neighborhood. $12 will get you a sampler of the two plus a silky roasted eggplant and pepper relish.
This makes good drinking food; so do Grandma's Greek Meatballs ($8.50) which take well to a lemon spritz and are so tender they slump over when cut with a fork. You'll want a drink while you wait for your table, and wait you probably will, as the two-story restaurant stays packed well into the night. But some perspective: the wait at Taverna Kyclades across the street is considerably longer, and unlike Kyclades, MP Taverna takes reservations.
Greek food is best shared, so you should order plenty of the generously portioned meze and salads, which are the most interesting parts of the menu. Take that unassuming Bulgar Salad ($8.50), a heap of tender, chewy bulgar run through with dates, almonds, olives, fennel, red onion, pistachios, and pomegranate. Got all that? You'll need a few bites to get it all down, and a few more to let sink in that this salad is to bulgar what roller coasters are to the merry-go-round. It's not a fluke. One day's special of grapefruit, pickled beets, shaved fennel, and almonds exemplified the kitchen's knack for lipsmacking, acid-driven sauces, a far cry from the put-a-lemon-on-it school of Astoria's typical cookery.
A Greek restaurant should be judged, at least in part, on the quality of its octopus. MP Taverna's ($11) does not boast the crusty char of, say, Gregory's, but it's spoon-tender, with a briny jolt not upstaged by the chickpeas, yogurt, and grassy olive oil that join it on the plate. Cypriot Lamb Sausage ($9) isn't as revelatory, and is uncharacteristically meager for the price, but it's impressively juicy and rewarding all the same. More substantive is the weighty plate of plump gigantes beans ($8) stewed with tomato and feta, sweet and salty and big enough to call a light dinner on its own.
If this doesn't sound like orthodox Greek cooking, it's not. MP Taverna is Greek in spirit and approach, but the kitchen doesn't shy away from broader Mediterranean influences. The restaurant should, Psilakis says, make the case that Greek is as natural a choice for Americans to eat as Italian; it does so by expanding your intuition for what Greek food can be while busting prejudices about its limitations.
The mains are where things get a little more traditional, and if you just want a plate of grilled fish, the kitchen has a fine Dourade ($19) with lemon to sell you, a few shades tougher than what you'll find at Kyclades and a touch better seasoned. But it's the Dumplings ($15) I'm still thinking about, gnudi-like pillows of cheese swimming in a thick, sweet tomato sauce alongside tender lamb sausage nubs and wilted spinach. Or the Lamb Shank ($23), with tender flesh that sighs off a curling arc of bone, dressed amply in its braising juices, sticky and sweet.
Dessert is less impressive: under-grilled watermelon one night, or a deconstructed galaktoboureko that pales in comparison to the original layered pastry. But this is in keeping with many of Astoria's Greek restaurants, where the best desserts are usually free. Another Astoria tradition: service that runs the gamut from brusque to obsequious (with professional and pleasant in between), which may not alarm locals used to this sort of thing, but is perhaps surprising for those who've ridden the N train all the way out for dinner.
And that is one of the most appealing things about MP Taverna: how well it fits in with its neighborhood. No, it's not your average Astoria Greek joint. The food's more nuanced and careful, the booze is way better, and the prices are accordingly higher. But it still feels as genuine and casual as its mom and pop neighbors, respecting its elders while shaking up expectations.
On one visit, I watched an older Greek man study his lamb shank, the restaurant's take on youvetsi, a homestyle dish of meat stewed with orzo. It took him a moment of poking and prodding, but soon enough the spark of recognition crept onto his face as he realized what he was eating. He deboned his shank and carefully scooped up the accompanying orzo, then proceeded to lick his plate clean. I did the same.