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A Greek Idyll

Molyvos bridges the old country and the new

Owen Dugan
Posted: May 19, 2004

Molyvos in New York serves sophisticated renditions of classic Greek dishes such as roasted leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary.
Recipes:
Melitzanosalata-Eggplant Spread
Roasted Leg of Lamb
Walnut Cake With Yogurt and Orange Spoon Sweets
Alternate Wine Suggestions
See also:
The Wines of Greece
An ancient wine region shows growing pains as it opens up to the modern world
Wine Spectator Menus
More than 150 wine-friendly recipes, including recommended wine matches

This August, the Olympics return to Athens, the site of the first modern games over a century ago and the capital of the event's historical homeland. Greece also sports a considerable national cuisine, and although it is less well-represented abroad than some of its Mediterranean neighbors, diligent diners can find fine examples of it in the United States.

One major proponent of Greek wine and food in the United States is Molyvos restaurant in New York. Walk in, and you will admire a balancing act between rustic Greek artifacts and sleek, sophisticated colors and patterns. The kitchen shows the same equilibrium: It delivers the traditional dishes, such as moussaka and baklava, its customers expect, but aspires to more than that, and is able to bring a level of refinement to this authentic cuisine without muddying the concept.

That this is accomplished with subtlety and warmth in Molyvos' Midtown Manhattan dining rooms is attributable mainly to owner John Livanos and chef Jim Botsacos. Livanos worked his way up from running diners to creating restaurants such as Café Meze in Hartsdale, N.Y. His first foray in Manhattan was opening the respected seafood restaurant Oceana, but the dream of creating a serious Greek restaurant persisted.

Livanos found Botsacos, a Greek American with experience behind the stoves at New York's '21' Club and other leading restaurants, which gave him a solid foundation in sophisticated cooking. Before opening the restaurant, the team went to Greece to study both real home cooking and restaurant fare. Upon returning to New York, Botsacos began bringing the two worlds together.

With food quality ensured, the task of building a strong wine list began. Greece may have had a well-documented relationship with wine in antiquity, but in recent history the reputation of its wine industry had suffered; the wines tended to be forbiddingly rustic, with at best unfamiliar flavors. Fortuitously, the benefits of modernization in Greek winemaking dovetailed with the restaurant's 1997 opening, enabling Livanos to pour wines he could be proud of.

Today their list numbers more than 300 selections, about a third of them Greek, and their inventory is some 8,500 bottles.

In the interest of seeing the food and wines in their best light, we tasted through several courses with a few wines matched to each. Botsacos sent out dishes ranging from modern versions of things that Homer might have eaten-at least in principle-to more subtle, sophisticated fare. The mandate to wine director Kamal Kouiri was threefold. Match to the food; use both indigenous and international varieties; include a non-Greek wine in each flight for contrast.

The first course was a meze sampler of three spreads (the recipe for one follows) served with pita and grilled bread-a traditional Greek opening. Melitzanosalata is a puree of grilled eggplant with garlic and smoky flavors from the fire. Taramasalata is a dip that mixes caviarlike carp roe with almonds, onions and other less-pronounced flavors. Tsatsiki is the classic creamy yogurt spread with bright garlic and herb; it helped take the edge off the unapologetically salty first two. The mezes announced a theme to the meal: acidity. Whether from lemon juice stirred in, tomatoes stewed with the main ingredient, or a healthy dollop of yogurt, the food tingled with acid. This was the ruination of at least one wine match, and became the primary target for most agreeable.

Our first two wines-one made from the Robola grape on the island of Cephalonia, the other a Pouilly-Fumé-were disappointing. The Robola was just too rustic and hard-edged on its own, reminding me of James Bond's refusal of it in For Your Eyes Only ("If you'll forgive me, I find that a little too scented for my palate."). The tsatsiki brought out flavors like bitter greens in the wine. The Loire white, on the other hand, was good with the cream and yogurt flavors in the tsatsiki, but was too muscular for the other spreads, which made it bitter.

The sparkling Domaine Tselepos Brut Greece Villa Amalia NV (NR, $16) had somewhat aggressive bubbles, but a nice light apple flavor. The fizz cut through the salt nicely, and the wine melded especially well, not surprisingly, with the caviar and slight nuttiness of the taramasalata.

The favorite both on its own and with the dishes was Domaine Tselepos Moschofilero Mantinia 2002 (NR, $15). Moschofilero is a white grape, and this rendition showed typical varietal characteristics. It was pretty on the nose, generously floral like a Muscat, and had assertive green grass acidity. Although the sparkling wine might edge it out as the best match to the taramasalata, the Moschofilero was still good with that and really sang with the others. Kouiri points out that it is from relatively high-altitude vineyards in the central Peloponnese, which contributes to the acidity. "Moschofileros can be too open," Kouiri says. "This one has more structure than most, but still has the typical flavors."

The main course was an archetypal leg of lamb marinated and roasted in olive oil, oregano, garlic and tomato. It was brought to the table whole and served family style with roasted potatoes and olives. To match it, Kouiri pulled four sturdy reds from his cellar. They revealed both the old and new Greece, although more flatteringly than the first course wine selections did.

A Gaia Agiorgitiko Nemea 2000 (NR, $20) opened up with cherries on the nose, turning to stewed prunes in the mouth, with a slightly tarry note on the finish. It tasted almost New World, especially with the lamb, which brought out the clean fruit flavors. A Kir-Yianni Syrah Imathia 1997 (NR, $28) from Imathia was nicely fruity and round, and had considerable spice, leather and chocolate flavors too. As Kouiri pointed out, this was the most Old World of the reds as evidenced by its earthiness. Unfortunately it didn't do much when tasted with the lamb-sometimes two perfectly good tastes don't communicate.

The Skouras Nemea Grande Cuvée 2001 (NR, $20), made from Agiorgitiko, started out a bit austere, and its fruit had an herbal, almost medicinal edge. It opened up considerably, with cherry spice overtaking the herbs, and the austerity giving way to a rich, lush mouthfeel. This wine and the lamb were like old friends, bringing out each other's full flavors, with sweetness and earthiness, fat and flesh in abundance. Both the wine and the meat were transformed, and we stopped talking and taking notes for a minute.

Botsacos ended the meal with three dishes that showed his light touch. The delicately flavored bogatsa-semolina custard squares baked in phyllo envelopes-was pillowy. His rice pudding was slightly lemony and just barely sweet, with a spoonful of cherries confit for depth. A spiced walnut and olive oil cake called karydopita came topped with yogurt and orange spoon sweets. These may be traditional in concept, but the treatment shows Botsacos's refinement of tradition.

As Botsacos explains, "There's no dairy in the cake-instead there's olive oil, and the syrup moistens it. Otherwise it would be pretty dry. In Greece, you might just spread some preserves on it, but I think the fat in the yogurt helps round it out."

The first of two wines tried with dessert was Muscat Samos Vin Doux NV. It had bright citrus aromas and flavors and was very sympathetic to the bogatsa and walnut cake. The second wine was Paris Sigalas Santorini Mezzo 2000 (NR, $17). The Assyrtiko and Aidani grapes are grown in the volcanic earth of the island of Santorini, then sun-dried for a week to concentrate the flavors and sugars before being pressed. It was darker in the glass and correspondingly richer, with deep honey and pine needle aromas and flavors. While it might have been more pleasurable on its own, it steamrollered over the delicate flavors of the bogatsa. And while the Muscat worked well with the cake, it was a little shy of a real match, despite the orange flavors in both. The Mezzo and the cake worked better together because they both had full flavors. If the flavors weren't a precise match, their depth and richness was. As for the rice pudding, some things are best eaten alone.

The most interesting result of this tasting is that a Greek wine proved the best match in every course, despite wide stylistic differences. There just seemed to be an understanding between the flavors in the wine and the food. As Greece manages to modernize while also preserving much of what distinguishes its wines, it is a good time to put them to the test. With the recipes following and some due diligence in tracking down the wines, you can find out for yourself.

Molyvos
871 Seventh Ave., New York
Telephone (212) 582-7500
Web site www.molyvos.com
Open Dinner daily; lunch Monday-Saturday
Credit cards All major

Recipes:

Melitzanosalata-Eggplant Spread

3 whole medium eggplants, approximately 4 pounds, washed
1/2 cup canned whole tomatoes, chopped and juices strained
3/4 cup white onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup goat's milk yogurt (or substitute 1/2 cup yogurt strained through cheesecloth overnight in the refrigerator)
1 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 to 3 tablespoons seltzer water
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, washed and dried
1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano, crumbled
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

Prepare a grill (you may also broil the eggplant). Pierce eggplants in several places with a fork and grill, turning frequently to prevent burning. Cook until the skin becomes black and the eggplant is soft throughout when pierced with a knife, about 15 minutes. If the outside is burning and the inside is uncooked, finish in a 400° F oven. Remove and cool on a wire rack over a baking sheet, to catch the juices. When eggplants are cool, peel the skin and coarsely chop the meat. Discard the juices.

Place the paddle attachment on a standing mixer. Add the eggplant, tomatoes, onion and garlic, and mix on medium speed for 1 minute. Stop the machine and add the yogurt. Mix on medium for 1 more minute.

With mixer on medium speed, slowly add the vinegar and lemon juice. Continue mixing; slowly add the olive oil. Add seltzer water as needed to reach desired consistency: slightly thick, but light and relatively loose.

Add parsley, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate overnight and serve.Yields 3 cups.

Roasted Leg of Lamb With Marinated Tomatoes and Herbed Bread Crumbs

1 7- to 8-pound leg of lamb, boned, trimmed, rolled and tied (ask your butcher to do this)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons dried Greek oregano, crumbled
1/2 cup dry white wine, plus more, if necessary
Chicken stock or water, if necessary
Marinated tomatoes (recipe follows)
Herbed bread crumbs (recipe follows)

If you are tying and seasoning the lamb at home, lay the boned leg flat on a cutting board and season with salt, pepper, 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon oregano. Roll the lamb, starting at one narrow end, until you have a spiral of lamb. Tie the roll to hold the meat in place and to allow for even cooking.

Make four small random slits and insert the garlic quarters.

Rub the lamb with 1 tablespoon olive oil, season all over with salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon oregano, cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 450° F. Remove the lamb from the refrigerator, bring to room temperature and place in a roasting pan just large enough to accommodate it. Sear in the oven for 25 minutes.

Pour the white wine around the roast, and reduce the oven temperature to 400° F. Roast the lamb, basting frequently with the pan juices, for another 25 to 30 minutes (add heated chicken stock or water to the pan during roasting if it becomes dry). Remove the lamb from the pan and cut away the strings. Ladle the marinated tomatoes over the lamb and return the pan to the oven for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, basting every 3 to 5 minutes. Before the last 5 minutes of cooking, sprinkle lamb with herbed bread crumbs. Remove lamb from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before carving. Total cooking time should be about 65 minutes for medium to medium-rare, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 130° F (outside of the oven, the internal temperature will rise to about 140° F for medium-rare). Serves 4 to 6.

Marinated Tomatoes

2 beefsteak tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon Greek oregano, crumbled
Salt and pepper

Score the bottom of each tomato with an "X." Drop tomatoes one at a time into boiling water for a few seconds. Remove and plunge into ice water. Cool. Peel skin by pulling from where it is scored on the bottom.

Place peeled tomatoes on a cutting board, stem side down, and quarter. Using a sharp knife, remove the pulp and seeds and discard. Dice the meat of the tomato and place in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and toss to coat. Set aside.

Herbed Bread Crumbs

1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon Greek oregano
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

In a mixing bowl, combine bread crumbs, garlic, oregano and lemon. Drizzle with olive oil and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss to coat. Set aside.

Walnut Cake With Yogurt and Orange Spoon Sweets

Nonstick (vegetable oil) cooking spray
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup Frangelico (or other hazelnut-flavored liqueur)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup fine semolina
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
Zest of 2 oranges
1/4 cup olive oil
Syrup (recipe follows)
1/2 cup low fat Greek yogurt (cow's milk)
Orange spoon sweets (recipe follows)

Spray the interior of six 4-ounce soufflé cups with vegetable oil spray and place on a baking sheet.

Dissolve the baking soda in the Frangelico. In a stainless steel mixing bowl, combine the baking powder, semolina, walnuts, sugar, cinnamon and cloves; make a well in the center. In another bowl, mix the orange juice and zest.

Pour the Frangelico mixture and the orange juice mixture into the well of the dry ingredients. Stir to combine. Fold in half of the olive oil; when incorporated, fold in the remainder.

Using a small ladle, fill each of the soufflé cups 3/4 full with the cake batter.

Set a convection oven to 325° F and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cakes comes out clean when removed. This may take as long as 25 minutes in a conventional oven.

Keep the cakes in the soufflé cups, drizzle half the syrup over the cakes and set aside to cool. Drizzle the remaining syrup over the cakes just before serving.

Serve at room temperature topped with 1 tablespoon Greek yogurt and 1 tablespoon orange spoon sweets per cake. Serves 6.

Syrup

2 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick
4 cups water
Peel from half an orange, white pith removed
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup honey

Combine all ingredients in a sauce pot, place over medium heat, and cook until contents are reduced to a syrup consistency and the liquid coats the back of a spoon, about 15 to 20 minutes. Skim the surface occasionally to clear syrup. Be careful not to overreduce the syrup, or it won't drizzle properly. Remove from heat, strain and cool.

Note: Leftover syrup can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Orange Spoon Sweets
2 oranges
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 cups water

Blanch the oranges: Place the oranges in a medium-sized saucepan and cover with cold water. Place the pan over high heat and bring to a boil. Cook the oranges for 1 minute, then drain. Repeat this blanching process two more times.

When oranges are cool enough to handle, place them on a cutting board and slice in half lengthwise. Set the halves on the cutting board, flat side down, and slice into thin slices. Transfer to a bowl, add the sugar, and toss to coat evenly.

Place a nonreactive stainless steel pan over high heat and add 3 cups of water. When the water comes to a boil, add the orange slices, reduce heat and simmer for 90 minutes. Drain and chill.

Note: Leftover spoon sweets can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Alternate Wine Suggestions:

Kamal Kouiri, wine director at Molyvos, led me and Wine Spectator managing editor and Greek wine taster Kim Marcus through several wines with each course. We chose the following wines as the best complements. Greek wines can still be difficult to find, and prices vary; if you cannot find the wines listed below, try to match the grape variety and region.

Melitzanosalata, Taramasalata and Tsatsiki
First choice: Domaine Tselepos Moschofilero Mantinia 2002 (NR, $15)
Alternate choices: Boutari Moschofilero Mantinia 2002 (85, $9), Alexandros Megapanos Savatiano Spata 2002 (84, $8)

Roasted Leg of Lamb
First choice: Skouras Nemea Grande Cuvée 2001 (NR, $20)
Alternate choices: Arkas Peloponnese Spriopoulos Porfyros 2001 (87, $16), Domaine Constantin Lazaridi Macedonia Amethystos Cava 2002 (87, $30)

Walnut Cake With Yogurt and Orange Spoon Sweets
First choice:Paris Sigalas Santorini Mezzo 2000 (NR, $17)
Alternate choices: L'Union de Cooperatives Vinicoles de Samos Samos Nectar 1999 (86, $16), D. Kourtakis Muscat Samos Kourtaki NV (84, $9)


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