Michael Psilakis has found the secret to world domination: Steadily, quietly build your empire in places nobody would think to look until you’ve achieved full saturation, at which point it will be too late for them to resist. This has long been a tactic for military leaders and Bond villains, but has never been a particularly popular strategy for those who like to use their power for good rather than evil. Like chefs.
The tried-and-true strategy for restaurant empire-building these days is to open in the next neighborhood to explode—or, if one of your partners is a celebrity sibling, on the long-smoldering Lower East Side. Make it small, preferably uncomfortably so, and watch as wait times climb into the hours while your staff rushes diners out the door, throwing dishes large and small at them all at once and letting them sort out what was what as they stand on the sidewalk, stuffed and dazed, 35 minutes later. From there, you quickly spin out a few more branches doing basically the same thing, spend all that banked-up patron capital, and then pray they like you enough to come back six months after the shine has worn off.
Think of it. Even the venerable Momofukus, which began with the noble goal of differentiation, have become multiple iterations of either the small-plates/large format spot for groups (Ssam, Noodle Bar) or the intimate tasting-menu-only extravaganza (Ko, Sydney, Australia’s Seiobo).
Psilakis’ trajectory, however, seems more in line with the heady days of the ’90s. In 2008 he opened Kefi, an approachable Greek tavern serving the chef’s childhood favorites writ large, as well as Anthos, a refined interpretation of the cuisine that garnered a Michelin star in its first year. Never mind that he was single-handedly steering the revival that took Greek cooking out of the plate-smashing, Opa!-shouting ghetto and brought it to napkins and tablecloths; he was building grand restaurants without the Vegas-targeting gimmickry or faux-exclusivity of his peers.
His stable today consists of the abovementioned Kefi, now a grande dame of the city’s Greek scene, and several locations of his casual MP Taverna in such gauche locations as Roslyn, Long Island, Irvington, in Westchester County, with one soon to come in Astoria, Queens, bringing coals to Newcastle in an incredibly audacious way. Most interesting of his properties, though, is Fish Tag (222 W. 79th St., michaelpsilakis.com/fishtag), nominally a wine bar-meets-seafood restaurant but in reality a playground for pescetarian experimentation.
Dishes run roughshod over national boundaries, from a smoked trout salad that is squarely Nassau County to Catalan shrimp served on top of one of the most convincing renditions of patatas bravas served outside Madrid. Greek grilled octopus is buried in a warm, mustard-dressed salad of new potatoes straight from a Munich picnic. Sheep’s-milk dumplings are of the same technique as Italian gnudi but tasting of feta cheese you once had in a dream, served with crumbled merguez sausage and drowned in a roasted red pepper coulis you will end up sneaking indelicate spoonfuls of, praying for a loaf of bread.
It takes a lot to overcome the space, the below-ground level of a townhouse on West 79th Street, a low-ceilinged rectangle with bar up front by the only window and spartan gray seating at back centered around a butcher-block-topped island that seemed to serve no purpose grander than well-disguised wait station. It takes even more to overcome the loneliness of a recent 6:30 pre-theater reservation. Fish Tag did so handily.
A meal of small plates was thoughtfully coursed from lightest to richest, revealing a cohesive progression of flavors we hadn’t imagined when we ordered with wild abandon. Service is on point, friendly and helpful without calling you “dude” or upselling the table on hand-wrought breads or unnecessary snacks.
If he so desires, Psilakis has built himself a restaurant that could easily take over the world. And if he does, I, for one, will welcome our new Greek overlord.
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