Greek hospitality has an ancient history—one that is inextricably linked with friendship, food, and drink. Now, thanks to the teamwork of five modern Greek men, all with professional hospitality backgrounds, a contemporary version of that tradition is thriving in Manhattan. Lifelong friends Constantine Youssis and Spiro Menegatos, together with 47-year industry-veteran Dinos Gourmos and two co-executive chefs Ioannis Markadakis and Chris Christou have brought their diverse talents and experiences together to create a modern, sophisticated Greek restaurant in the space formerly graced by Oceana.
But the team is doing much more than extending the familiar customs of their country. In the kitchen, the co-executive chefs are working together to capture both the contemporary flavors of Greece, while also evoking the nostalgia of Grandma’s cooking. Their synergy leads to an authentic Greek dining experience refined by their cosmopolitan experiences. Chef Markadakis was born and raised in Piraeus, Greece; chef Christou grew up in a Greek family in South Africa. Both of them had early experience working in restaurants and went on to culinary school—Markadakis to the Hospitality School of Athens and Christou to the Prue Leith College of Culinary Arts in London. Markadakis came to Nerai directly from the executive chef post at Vezene, one of the top fine dining restaurants in Greece after working at notable restaurants in Greece and Southern Europe, including Messiah, Elio Sironi, Solemar, and Nobu Mykonos while Christou has been working at top restaurant in New York City for the past eight years—most recently Buddakan—but also The London, Per Se, Corton, Dovetail, and Ai Fiori.
The hospitality begins at the door as you are welcomed into the light and airy multi-level space by a staff trained in the fine art of personalized attention and well-educated about Greek cuisine. Upstairs, the elegant dining room is comfortable and inviting, the high ceiling draped with a billowing white canopy, the dining room flanked by white-pillowed banquets, whitewashed walls, dark wood, and accents of Mediterranean blue—in an interior that evokes the feeling of dining outdoors on Mykonos. Downstairs, the dining room has a nautical feel and a casual spirit that make it perfect for lunch, informal business meetings, or cocktails, and light bites at the bar.
Recognizing that a proper Greek welcome begins with a small bite and a drink, the chefs start you off with an amuse bouche—a dish filled with small spheres of fresh sheep’s milk cheese rolled in herbs along with imported kalamata olives served with warm grilled pita—a prelude to the meze, or classic spreads and dips for sharing. By paying attention to the telling and evocative details, using the latest techniques, and the best ingredients (local or imported depending on the desired effect), they translate these familiar spreads into something different and serve them elegantly in glass jars with thick, fresh grilled pita. For the tzatziki, they add a touch of mascarpone to make the strained yogurt, cucumber, and garlic for a smoother and richer texture; the tarama—often a thick, heavy spread—is turned unexpectedly light and fluffy, with not only cod roe but also masago (the roe of capelin, a member of the salmon family) whipped together with lemon mousse. Skordalia is a creamy garlic and potato puree with the subtle flavor of saffron and almond, with crisp parsnip ribbon garnish. The flavor of the fava bean dip is deepened by the addition of slow-cooked caramelized onions and a touch of the Greek spirit, mastiha.
When the food is this flavorful and satisfying, it’s easy to forget that it’s also healthy with its reliance on olive oil, yogurt, fiber-rich beans, and other good sources of protein such as fresh seafood, as well as plenty of fresh vegetables. For example, in Christou and Markadakis’ version of spanakopita, four delicate packages of fresh spinach are wrapped in light and crispy filo (without a visible hint of oil). Fisherman’s carpaccio is a stunning presentation of the freshest hamachi, thinly sliced and arranged with watermelon radishes, ouzo-marinated cucumbers and an emulsion of olive jus, lemon and yogurt. The grilled Spanish octopus is slightly charred on the outside, perfectly tender inside and served atop chickpea salad with imported capers, red pepper and onion.
The salad course also goes beyond the expected. The chefs take painstaking care with the traditional Greek salad—stripping each tomato of its skin, leaving behind only tender juiciness, and combining it with Arahova feta, rye rusks, cucumber, onion, and kalamata olives. The grape arugula salad is an original, with bright arugula and baby spinach, tangy goat cheese, and a smashing combination of sweet grapes, crunchy hazelnuts and tart grapefruit vinaigrette.
In the best Greek tradition, Nerai offers the freshest seafood by the pound—Lavraki from Greece, Mediterranean Dorado, Black Tiger shrimp from the Pacific, langoustine from Iceland, pink snapper from New Zealand and lobster from Maine—prepared to the diner’s specifications, any of which can be accompanied by a choice of traditional sides with the Nerai touch: oregano fries, roasted baby potatoes, spinach rice, Brussels sprouts with sausage, seasonal vegetables or roasted rainbow beets. However, the highlight of the menu are the mains, carefully thought out and composed entrees: Norwegian cod is a lighter spin on fried bacala, pan-seared with a crisp skin and orange-ouzo glaze, served with delicate skordalia; and short rib youvetsi is masterful long-braised beef with a risotto-like orzo, slowly cooked together with Piave Vecchio (a nutty, aged Italian cow’s milk cheese) and tomato confit, aromatic with cinnamon.
At this point in the meal, you will know how transporting the food is. You have tasted Greece. But for a taste of paradise, continue to the deserts. Markadakis has made masterful use of his study of Greek pastries at the Hospitality School of Athens, and the encouragement of chef Iosif Silianakis at a Mediterranean fusion restaurant in Greece called Messiah, to develop creative interpretations of Greek desserts that are almost mythological. Lavender-infused yogurt and lavender honey, whipped into an ethereal lavender mousse; shredded filo (aka kataifi ekmek) is doused with anise-honey syrup topped with custard, roasted pistachios and cinnamon; Saragli are hand-rolled baklava served with pistachio gelato are light, fresh, just the right amount of sweet, crunchy and soft at the same time. But perhaps the ultimate compliment to Greek grandmas everywhere is the chocolate mosaiko, composed of crushed biscotti, hazelnut chocolate, black cherries, all rolled together with white chocolate mocha sauce.
The drinks program is, of course, another essential element of hospitality. Beverage director Andreas Zinelis, who previously worked with chef Christou at Buddakan, oversees the 137 bottle selections on the wine list (40 percent Greek), which features many fine Greek wines, such as the Nerantzi Syrah or the Domaine Hatzidakis, Assyrtiko de Mylos, not readily available elsewhere, as well as sparkling wine from Greece, Italy and France. The cocktails also reflect the sophisticated Greek palate with inventive Greek twists on classic cocktails. Icarus—who dared to fly too close to the sun—is honored by a take on the Aviation cocktail, a Collins glass of Tanquery gin, mastiha, crème de violette, turning the tonic into the sky with a lemon wheel representing the sun. The Mediterraneo blends fig-infused vodka with cucumber, cinnamon and lemon—a cocktail that is a perfect place to begin again—starting with the hospitable custom of mezes.