When ordering a plate of seafood paella, you might imagine traditional images of Spain, like flamenco dancers and plucking guitarists, not necessarily the whitewashed houses and ancient ruins of the Greek isles.
But some Greek chefs in Astoria are ushering in a new wave of Greek fusion cuisine, combining traditional dishes with other ethnic influences or modern flourishes.
“People are going to be surprised,” said Michael Psilakis, owner of MP Taverna, whose newest branch opened at 31-29 Ditmars Blvd. on April 22.
Since Astoria residents are used to traditional Greek food, Psilakis believes he can be a bit more experimental and offer new twists on traditional cuisine. Psilakis’ Greek paella, for example, is an amalgamation of traditional Greek youvesti and Spanish paella that swaps rice for orzo and seafood for lamb.
“This whole restaurant is the final incarnation of years of trying to move Greek food out of the ethnic genre that I first started into,” Psilakis said.
Take for example, Psilakis’ gyro spiced sliders, which may share the garlic, marjoram and rosemary flavor palette of the traditional Greek sandwich, but have been transformed into miniburgers topped with a spicy whipped feta sauce. The Greek macaroni and cheese, Psilakis noted, “tastes like a spanakopita, but it’s mac and cheese.”
“The idea is not about better or worse,” Psilakis said. “It’s perceiving the food with a different eye.”
Fusion trends began popping up in restaurants in the early 1990s, with Asian fusion, Tex-Mex and nouveau pizza creations leading to entire restaurants devoted to the combination of two or more traditional dishes. Yet Greek food has remained largely traditional.
That may now be changing with at least six new Greek restaurants opening in New York last year, such as Boukies in Manhattan and Faros in Park Slope, that purport to serve a newer, modern take on Greek food.
A number of contemporary Greek restaurants are popping up in Astoria, where nearly 7,000 Greek immigrants reside along with about 15,000 more people reporting Greek ancestry, according to the 2010 Census. With the Greek economic crisis still in full swing, yet another surge of Greeks is immigrating to the neighborhood.
Konstantinos Batalamas, owner of Thymari restaurant at 32-07 34 Ave., knows about the trends back in his homeland. By mixing the cuisines of mainland Greece with those of the isles, Batalamas is introducing a new twist in New York that he’s already used to back home.
“It’s considered contemporary here,” said Batalamas, “but it’s not really because they’ve been doing it for years.”
For example, pork cooked with leeks is a common dish, “but we serve it with bulger wheat,” Batalamas said, “which is also very popular, but not together.”
Batalamas uses feta for his fried saganaki, coats it in sesame seeds and tops it with a blueberry and blackberry compote. Berries also show up in other dishes, through the bright red berries from the mastic tree, the famed trees on the island of Chios that produce the mastic spice popular in Greek cuisine. Batalamas puts them in his shrimp saganaki that also adds a touch of cinnamon — not a traditional recipe.
“The whole movement is trying to bring over things that we used to cook at home like legumes, wild berries, herbs. We do not see many of them in Greek tavernas in New York,” Batalamas said.
Peter Giannakas, the chef at Ovelia restaurant at 34-01 30 Ave., takes traditional ingredients or products and prepares them in atypical ways. He uses Greek coffee in a rub for skirt steak, mint in a traditional Greek salad, and candied figs, usually a sweet snack, on lamb kebabs.
But twisting Greek staples isn’t his only approach. Giannakas also fuses them with other types of cuisine.
“The Latin cuisine is neck-to-neck with Greek cuisine for me,” Giannakas said. “Our corn flapjacks are a homage to the arepa and our vaca frita salad takes Cuban steak and tosses in olives and lentils, which are almost always at a Greek dinner table.”
Asian influences also come into play in an ouzo stir fry that features chicken sautÈed in olive puree with scallions over rice noodles The dish was inspired by Giannakas’ father’s love of Asian cuisine.
“Innovation in the kitchen was something my parents instilled in me and to this day helps my brother and me keep our menu fresh,” Giannakas said.