Nerai puts forth a modern twist on Greek cuisine in a polished setting that is as beautiful as it is soothing. The Greek restaurant opened last year at Oceana’s original location in Midtown.
There is often a maritime theme to Greek restaurants. But the design at Nerai manages to catch the feeling of a calm summer night on the Aegean without feeling remotely cliché. The elegant, soft folds of the fabric on the walls recall sails, and a screen made of dark wood shows off an abstract lattice that upon long enough inspection, is reminiscent of a fisherman’s net. Nerai is short for mermaid in Greek.
Upstairs, the White Room features a 25-foot-high white canopy that hangs from the ceiling. Look up and it feels like you’re glancing up at a tall ship’s billowing sails. Turquoise glass urns add a decorative touch. In the adjacent private Midnight Room, comfortable white banquettes and pillows line up the room, underneath a ceiling of latticed bamboo, with lanterns aloft.
If Nerai presents itself as a modern, elegant restaurant whose essence is staunchly Greek, the same goes for the cuisine. The presentation is in keeping with fine dining, but the inspiration and flavors remain a faithful homage to the cooking of the mothers and grandmothers who watched over the appetites and health of their families.
A Modern Twist
The co-executive chefs are Ioannis Markadakis, who came straight from an executive chef position at Vezene in Athens, and Chris Christou, most recently chef de cuisine at Buddakan, with time also spent at Per Se and Corton.
The two work closely together, you can tell, because they often finish one another’s sentences.
“We didn’t want to do fancy things without a point,” said Markadakis. “We wanted to do traditional food.”
“And tighten it up afterward,” added Christou.
Markadakis has had years of experience working in fine dining in Greece and southern Europe, coming most recently from the executive chef position at Venere in Athens. Christou grew up eating Greek food—but cooking and serving it in a restaurant setting was new to him.
“The food that you’ve grown up with, you never see it as fine dining. The food that my grandmother cooked or that my mom cooked, I never saw it as fine dining, ever,” he said. “But this was actually for me the best food that you can possibly get. … When I met chef Ioannis, it was an eye opener that you can actually do the food that you were raised with, you can actually put it out there as fine dining.”
With an updated, modern touch, that is. They are not about to cook beets the same way their mothers would do at home, said Markadakis.
“You have to understand the Greek mentality of cooking: everything’s well-done, cooked beyond … ” said Christou. “We try to walk a fine line between what we eat at home and what we actually serve at the restaurant. That’s where the fine part comes in, in the sense of keeping it pristine.”
Much of the seafood is flown in daily from Greece—lavraki (branzino), dorado, red mullet, and pink snapper—all charged by the pound. Christou was excited about langoustines that had been caught earlier that day, flown in from Scotland, and added to the dinner menu.
I tried the lobster orzotto, a butter poached Maine lobster tail, over delicate orzo redolent of all the richness of a lobster bisque ($46), a sort of lobster-on-lobster dish. It had a silky, soothing quality about it.
A selection of classic spreads, though simple as they may be, are given a sophisticated spin. The skordalia was accompanied by delicate slivered almonds and threads of dehydrated parsnips, lending the potato-garlic dip a delicate sweetness and nuttiness. The tzatziki was the pinnacle of freshness, with bits of cucumber throughout the thick, creamy yogurt spread.
The feta was accompanied with a chili pepper for those with an inclination toward spicier foods. Other spreads included hummus, fava, tarama—all classics delicately presented with garnishes that accentuated the dips themselves (three for $16).
Moussaka gets the fine dining treatment, shedding the customary ground beef for braised duck in between fine layers of potatoes and eggplant topped with a kefalotiri béchamel ($23). It indeed wouldn’t be your mom’s moussaka. It’s a different guise, but the same comforting savoriness.
Cocktails feature Greek ingredients or mythology, in some cases (as in the Persephone, with Prosecco, Cointreau, St. Germain, and pomegranate, $16).
If you have a sweet tooth, don’t skip dessert. The saragli, the hand-rolled baklava, with fine éclats of almond and pistachio, is first-rate. The only, very disappointing thing is getting to the end of these cigar-shaped sweets ($12).
Another sweet ending is the lavender-infused yogurt, served with pineapple carpaccio, lavender honey, and caramelized pecans ($12).
Nerai offers a $32 prix fixe lunch, including starter, entree, and dessert.
55 E. 54th St. (between Madison and Park)
Lunch: Monday–Friday 11:45 a.m.–3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday–Saturday 5 p.m.–10 p.m.
Sunday 3 p.m.–9 p.m. (beginning Feb. 9)