Michael Psilakis exploded onto the food scene in 2008, winning seemingly every award and accolade possible. Food&Wine Best New Chef, Bon Appetit and Esquire magazines’ Chef of the Year and a rare Michelin Star for an American Greek restaurant. He was truly a man on fire (though, when talking about chefs I should point out not literally on fire) and everything he touched seemed to turn to gold or, more accurately, exciting and delicious food. After a split with his business partner, Donatella Arpaia, Chef Psilakis opened a few eclectic establishments, meeting with mixed reviews and varying levels of success. Manhattan’s Fishtag was described as “….a strange and frustrating if occasionally marvelous restaurant….” in a 2011 New York Times review by Sam Sifton, followed by a fast split of Psilakis and his opening chef Ryan Skeen. Worse was a 2009 review of Gus & Gabriel Gastropub which was downright brutal. It seemed for a bit that Chef Psilakis was the mythological Icarus, flying too high, burning too bright and, inevitably, falling back to Earth. However, having just dined at MP Taverna in Irvington I am pleased to report that this chef’s mojo is intact and we in Westchester are lucky to be the beneficiaries.
Chef Psilakis is a self-taught chef who learned about Greek flavors in his mother’s kitchen. Perhaps then, it is fitting that in returning to classic taverna food the chef has found that core again, creating the perfect platform upon which he can use his prodigious skills to further elevate the cuisine. Psilakis once told me that chefs are gift givers, generous people who give of themselves for the enjoyment of others and, in this 18th century building on the Hudson River, he seems to be fully in touch with that spirit.
An ample parking lot overlooks the Tappan Zee bridge. If you arrive at dusk it is impossible not to be enjoying your experience even before entering.
We were lucky enough to score an outdoor table on a beautiful evening. The waterfront, the newly renovated brick buildings and even the Metro North station nearby added to the ambiance, as did the well chosen playlist of songs.
In an effort to try as many offerings as possible we ordered a large variety of appetizers, or Meze as the menu states, and then share an entree. Eating at a Greek taverna, a Michael Psilakis taverna no less, pegged my odds of not ordering octopus at a firm 0%. Modestly described as Octopus, Mediterranean chickpea salad, the dish that landed in front of us, was wonderfully composed, technically superb and beautifully balanced. A thin crust, perfectly charred, gave way to impossibly tender octopus. A tart Ladolemono sauce complimented the ingredients, adding a fresh acidity to both contrast and accentuate the char of the squid.
The Greek salad has, at this point, been cannibalized by every diner and salad bar in creation. Salty, rubbery Feta cheese, dressing overpowered with dried oregano, it somehow manages to maintain its appeal due to a great combination of flavors. If that is your experience with Greek salad then the MP (salad) will be a revelation. Creamy, mild feta counters a surprisingly elegant Greek vinaigrette. Subtlety is not what we’ve come to expect from our Greek salad, but it’s exactly what is delivered at MP Taverna. When I’m at a great restaurant I marvel at the ability of the kitchen to have every part of a salad coated in dressing while never having it feel overpowering or cloying. That the same level of perfection is achieved in a casual environment is impressive beyond measure.Occasional briny pops of olives were the perfect foil to crisp, fresh lettuce and bracing red onion.
It seems fitting that my one epically failed photograph was of the evening’s lone misfire. Mussels & Gigantes, tomato, loukaniko and bread crumbs was great in theory. The mussels were, in fact, plump and sweet. The garlic was ingeniously slivered to mimic the shape of the well cooked gigante beans and the loukaniko (a Greek lamb sausage) worked well. And in theory, citrus spiked breadcrumbs were the perfect finishing touch. The problem is that citrus spike was an understatement. They were tart and slightly bitter. In fairness to this dish, when all the components reached my mouth in the same bite the combination soared. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case and the parts in this dish outweighed the whole.
A classic combination of Greek dips further showed the way a great chef can up the ante on your expectations. Yogurt, chickpea and eggplant spreads, served with warm pita, were not just a small plate to get started. All were beautifully seasoned and incredibly refreshing.
This brings us to the entree portion of our journey. I was hard pressed to choose between the offerings and I’m still haunted by the options I didn’t choose (Helloooo, spicy lamb dumplings, I’m looking at you!). However, in the end, I decided the best way to judge a taverna would be to order the lamb burger. The things I do for you guys.
Where do I start with this lamb burger? Well, let’s not even start with the burger. You see that golden brown amazingness in the foreground of the photo? Yeah, those were a hybrid potato chip/ French fry. They were crispy and salty on the outside and, somehow despite the thinness, fluffy and soft on the inside. They were incredibly addictive, made even more so with the addition of a creamy Htipiti spread (roasted pepper and feta) to dip them in. Finally, the burger. Perfectly cooked, beautifully pink on the inside, it was tangy and grassy while not being overly gamey. I will refrain from calling it one of the best burgers I’ve had, but that’s just to stop this review from sliding into abject love letter.
We didn’t order dessert. As I’ve said in the past I almost never do. If I was ever going to write a memoir it would probably be entitled, “No Dessert For Me Thanks. I’ll Just Have Another Appetizer.” Until my editor and publisher got a hold of it and gave it a decent title. Or demanded their advance back. Anyway, though we didn’t order dessert, the table of three women next to us did. Since this isn’t a court of law I’d like to introduce hearsay into evidence. The women sounded like Sally at the Carnegie Deli.
Also, that’s what I sounded like with the lamb burger. Go to MP Taverna, preferably soon while the weather is still good. But really, just go!
****A note on pricing: We were given a $200 gift certificate by (awesome) friends. We ordered 3 appetizers, 1 entree, a soup special and a bottle of really nice wine. We still have half the GC left. Great place.