quiet columbus avenue was no preparation for the frenzied commotion that greeted me inside kefi on a recent sunday night. at a quarter to eight, a 10-minute wait just to check in for my reservation afforded time to admire the blue-tiled maritime mosaic on the back wall, an artistic punctuation to the restaurant's fittingly azure color scheme.
co-owner and executive chef michael psilakis, who also runs more upscale anthos in midtown with partner donatella arpaia (of davidburke and donatella renown), has made this his more traditional-and affordable-take on the greek food of his youth. tablecloths there are not, and simple kefi t-shirts on the servers keep things a comfortable notch or two below fancy. even the decorative ceramic pots, painted plates and hanging woven baskets that fill the multi-roomed space help create a feeling of casual familial dining, though the presence of my brother and sister at the table may have had just as much to do with that.
when it comes to examining the two-page menu, don't expect a quick study; choosing is anything but easy. after much contemplation we (or rather i) decided that the $6.50 greek salad would be a surefire hit. not so much. an overabundance of shaved fennel turned the dish into a bland, soggy slaw, whose only saving grace was a liberal helping of feta and an assortment of juicy olive slices. it was, however, the only disappointment.
the house-made cypriot sausage ($7.50), an herb-infused mix of ground lamb and pork, was so soft that that it would have been just as easy to chew sans teeth. served over a cooling pool of very dill-y tzatziki, the accompanying warm pita slices disappeared along with every drop of leftover liquid on the plate. but the best of the appetizers, the grilled octopus and bean salad, looked frighteningly similar to a jacques cousteau research specimen. a thick octo-arm, curled and tentacled, stared up almost laughingly at us, as if to say, "do you really dare to eat me?" well, yes, and for good reason: the tender, grilled cephalopod tasted better than anything the french explorer ever dissected, especially with bites of chickpeas to go with every suction cup.
at this point, i was tempted to add kefi's award-winning meatballs ($6.25) to the mass of meze we'd just downed, but the arriving helpings of swordfish, striped bass and baby lamb chops changed that plan. scenes of october foliage-a not too common occurrence in the land of socrates-flashed through my mind as i sampled the bed of cinnamon and clove-laced cauliflower that propped up my brother's heart-shaped swordfish steak. it was a most surprising contrast to the burst of lemon that oozed from my sister's delicate piece of striped bass, which worked perfectly with our $40 bottle of santorini kootsyonoppolous.
made from the assyrtiko grape, a white native of the mediterranean isle of santorini (and one of many distinctly greek varietals offered here), its soft, round texture and pleasant, but not overly fruity notes even played nicely with my medium-rare baby lamb chops and buttery white rice risotto, the day's $22 special.
after letting my brother play dad's part by sucking the rest of the lamb off the bone, only dessert remained to be had. of the two that came, the galaktobouriko (or "galactic burrito" as our otherwise straight-faced waiter termed it), a gelatinous, honey and orange glazed cheese custard, was more interesting, but less satisfying, than the crumbled halva-topped chocolate mousse with sesame sorbet. be sure to include chocolate with every bite of sorbet, lest dessert taste too much like your morning bagel.
with the bill paid and the bitter taste of greek coffee still on my tongue, we finally made our exit into the upper west side night. but not without staring longingly at every plate of food we hadn't ordered on the way out. macaronia and souvlaki, i'll be back.
kefi 505 columbus ave. betw. 84th and 85th streets 212-873-0200 entrees: $13.95 to $16.95 (excluding specials) reservations recommended