The first months, in the fall of 2004, were particularly difficult. No one seemed to understand what he was doing with Greek cooking, Psilakis writes. Desperate for a controversial idea to get media attention, he created an eight-course offal tasting menu. It got him into a few magazines, and Anthony Bourdain predicted that Psilakis would one day be a star. But it was Frank Bruni's rave in the New York Times and the two stars he gave Onera in December 2004 that put Psilakis on the gastronomic map of this most competitive city. Onera's success led Psilakis to open his midtown Anthos, which received one Michelin star in both 2008 and 2009.
"Mr. Psilakis treats Greece the way many New York chefs have long treated Italy or Southeast Asia: as inspiration rather than doctrine, a set of seasonings, ingredients and ideas to draw from and disregard," Bruni wrote in his review of Onera. I can't find better words to describe the book's recipes. Psilakis's salad of wild bitter greens, roasted peppers, grilled onion, oil-marinated dried tomato, and kefalotiri is a perfect example. The salad, far from traditional, ingeniously combines frisée--poetically called "wild bitter green"--with sweet peppers, salty cheese, and smoky-sweet onion, together with sprigs of parsley, dill, and mint leaves, dressed in "red wine and black pepper vinaigrette"--a very sophisticated dressing with 11 ingredients.
Starting from his "father's garden" Psilakis' book moves to "open water" and returns home for "dinner family-style" followed by his "first recipes." Then we come to "the hunting trip"--a coming-of-age ritual of sorts for the male members of his extended family. I wonder if the rabbit his father, uncles, and cousins killed in that first hunting adventure made such a lasting impression on them as it did on the chef: His grilled rabbit confit is a truly brilliant dish. The slow-braised pieces of meat come out of the garlicky aromatic olive oil perfectly succulent after three hours, and the brief final smoky char makes the meat irresistible--by far the best rabbit recipe I have tried.
Holding a baby lamb while his father slit its throat for the traditional Greek Easter feast was a traumatic childhood experience for the author. He writes that from it he learned to respect the butchered animals, as he was taught by his is father--originally from Crete--to love every part of the lamb, especially organ meat. In "a lamb and a goat" he gives recipes for lamb's tongue and heart, along with the roasted leg of lamb, and braised goat.
In his introduction for "Anthos--the new world," the author goes overboard with "Greek pride", and I admit to tiring of the repetition of the theme, particularly near the end of the book. It is probably my problem, having spent my life in Greece; I certainly know many Greek-Americans who genuinely feel the same way Psilakis does. The organization is likely to frustrate many people expecting something of a standard cookbook. But it's a beautiful book to look at, and aside from that brilliant rabbit I found the dish I so much enjoyed when I dined at Anthos and was hoping was here: Skordalia potato-garlic soup with crispy bacaliaro confit and beet tartar. I seem to have tried an earlier version of the dish, though, as I remember my soup perfectly white, not tinted from the "quenelles" of beet-caper-mustard-horseradish "tartar". I am very tempted to try making it soon.
Recipe: Fried Calamari and Whitebait with Crispy Chickpeas and Lemon
Recipe: Grilled Rabbit Confit