Michael Psilakis' New "Fishtag" Opens In Manhattan
These are a few of the creations on the menu at Manhattan's Fishtag, the newest restaurant opened by Chef Michael Psilakis, who has been reinventing what restaurant patrons think of as Greek cuisine for the last five years in New York.
Psilakis will never be called a crowd pleaser. But the patrons and critics who have followed this unique chef the last five years or so around New York City are pleased every time he opens a new place, which has been often.
In the last five years, Psilakis has been Chef-owner or part-owner in six Manhattan restaurants. Fishtag makes seven. They have ranged from fine-dining Anthos and Dona to brew-pub Gus & Gabriel and the original Onera, which opened in 2005 in the current location for Fishtag.
His Onera, Anthos, Dona, and Mia Dona, each earned two stars from The New York Times. Anthos received two, and might have had three but for some of the highly questionable design decor chosen by his former partner Donatella Arpaia. Currently, he has ownership in just Fishtag and Kefi, the latter being a highly successful casual dining experience on the upper West side where Psilakis's Mediterranean expertise shines through in everything from the luscious spreads I can't bring myself to call mere hummus to the Cypriot sausage, meatballs, souvlaki and sheep milk ravioli.
Psilakis has competed on The Food Network's "Iron Chef America," and been named Chef of the Year by Esquire and "Best New Chef" by Food and Wine Magazine.
Don't get the idea that Psilakis is not successful just because he has opened and closed a lot of doors. It is more that he has been exploring the ups and downs of having business partners, eating trends, the economy and the intersection of his own imagination and that of the serious diner. His food has always been excellent and imaginative. And Fishtag is no exception.
Psilakis is an artist with crudo and sashimi, with a reputation for expert layering of flavors. The Sea urchin crudo in ocean water with lemon and cracked tellicherry peppercorn, served in a stemware glass should be a signature appetizer. The water, in case you want to know is flown from Asia; and while sounding like a pretentious ingredient, is sublime, giving the urchin a quality not unlike an oyster pulled from the water, shucked and eaten all in the same motion.
The overall menu at Fishtag takes some instruction and orientation from the wait-staff. On the main menu, there are appetizers which are grouped with a main-course in such a way as to recommend the profession of the meal. The urchin, the scallops, as well as a greek "spoon salad" and a spicy cod soup ($10.00), for example, are all recommended as a lead in to Grilled Sturgeon with beets and horseradish ($25.00).
The recommended lead-ins for a Grilled Striped Bass ($23.00), for another example, are a salad of chopped chicory, wild arugula and bulgur; or grilled sardines with fennel confit, saffron pickled fennel, radish and dried capers. Of course, patrons can order whatever they want, but the recommendations are interesting and thoroughly worth considering. "I want people to feel comfortable, but I also want to offer the kind of total experience they want to come back for," says Psilakis. "Grouping the dishes this way, and recommending wine pairings also allows me to get across everything we are thinking about the food."
Octopus in the wrong hands can be wretched, especially if you like octopus and go out of your way to order it. In Fishtag's hands, it is about as good as it ever gets: smoked and it disappears in your mouth like a sea-cloud flanked with a bit of chorizo, mushroom and lemon ($13.00)
Psilakis is known for his daring and his love of offal. When he burst on he scene in 2005 with Onera, he quickly became known around town among lovers of kidneys, brains, livers and hearts as the place to go for a tasting menu of sublime innards. The only trace here of that is the grilled branzino stuffed with headcheese ($26.00), which is an inspired combination.
It's the fish and careful treatment that should attract patrons to Psilakis's kitchen. But he is a creative pairer of fish and meat as well; Bouchot mussels and spicy lamb ($22.00); grilled swordfish and greek sausage ($25.00). There is a lamb burger, too, for the burger lover ($16.00) that Psilakis imported from his now-closed Anthos fine dining restaurant.
Fishtag employs a sophisticated and helpful (if you embrace it) system of recommendations for wine, beer and even spirits to pair with dishes and groups of dishes. Next to groups of dishes, recommended wines re described as "bright and complex whites," "light and druid driven reds," "Easy drinking session beers." Some dishes and groups of dishes also have recommendations for pairing of silver Tequilas, peaty Scotches, rye, etc. Turn the menu over and the same descriptions have specific brands and bottling to choose from. I had a 2009 Sigalas Santorini from Greece with my Octopus, and a Captain Lawrence IPA Ale from a New York State brewery with Grilled Prawn, feta and spicy chilies Bruschetta. And there is absolutely no reason not to have a glass of Rye with Fishtag's lamb burger or the Paccheri (pasta) with braised sepia, smoked mozzarella and ricotta salata.
Psilakis says that he wants Fishtag to be something like a "gastro-pub" but with fish. To that end, and because the restaurant is located in a largely residential section of Manhattan, he offers a second kind of menu meant to draw people back again and again for different experiences.
The second menu is the Beverage, Cheese, Charcuterie, Appetizing, Coffee, Tea, Ice Cream, Sorbet menu. Here, diners could hang out and sample a lot of first-rate cheeses from France, Italy, Austria, Spain, England, as well as good domestics. They range from Gabieton: Midi -Pyrenees, cow and sheep milk cheeses from France to Stilton from Nottinghamshire, England and a Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Prices per plate range from $4.75 to $12.00, which means two people could have a pretty interesting sit-down of cheese tasting for $30-$40.
Turning to the Charcuterie pages of the second menu, one finds Irish salmon, Gravlax salmon, sablefish, Finocchiona (coarse, spiced salami), Mortadella, Lardo, Prosciutto di Parma. here again, the menu offers wine, beer and spirits suggestions: explosive and bold whites, full-flavored brews and Reposado Tequilas for match with Pastrami salmon or smoked tuna.
Again, I can see some haughty food reviewers thinking that the menus and Psilakis are being too fussy, too suggestive and meddlesome. But I disagree. If a diner is in a hurry, Fishtag may not be the place to try when you have a show to catch. But the quality of the food and drink offerings are so good that I would be hard pressed to have the same experience twice. If I lived in the neighborhood, I might be tempted to keep a notebook of pairings over time. And with a little time spent with the menu and one of the wait-staff, the whole approach can lead to a more successful ordering experience.
Those who might be impatient with it might be likened to someone who tests drives a new car with a lot of electronic controls and throws in the towel because they can't figure out the controls in the first 15 seconds.
The key point here is that food has always been in excellent hands with this self-taught Chef. The irony of Psilakis's talent as a chef, and his somewhat frenetic business track record is that he is one of the few top-line chefs around with an MBA.
The space Fishtag occupies has had four incarnations in six years. Rather than think of it as bad luck, Psilakis now considers it a laboratory. It doesn't take much cash to refit for each idea has had. Indeed, he says the Gus & Gabriel gastro-pub was not a failure, and will surface in another space. Previous to that experiment, he started Kefi in the space, and then moved it into larger digs a bit further up-town.
If Fishtag has one knock on it, it's that it isn't closer to mid-town to attract more of the commuter crowd. But that's their problem, not one for the people on the upper west side.
Fishtag: 222 West 79th Street, New York City
Gallery: FishTag Restaurant