Editor’s Note: Nisi closed in 2011.
At Englewood’s Nisi, the traditional Greek seafood dish garides saganaki “is not,” says executive chef John Piliouras, “just shrimp baked in tomato sauce with commercial feta cheese on top.” Not on your life.
He makes his marinara from fresh plum tomatoes (or imported, canned San Marzano), fresh garlic, onion, olive oil, saffron, and flakes of dried Turkish Aleppo red pepper. He infuses the marinara with a fish stock enriched with onions, celery, leeks, fennel, thyme, bay leaves, peppercorns, ouzo, and white wine. Then he sandwiches jumbo Gulf shrimp between layers of the finished sauce, sprinkles on plenty of crumbled Dodoni feta (made in Greece from a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk), and bakes at 350 degrees for 10 minutes—until the sauce and cheese are bubbly but the shrimp is still tender.
“This is not a one-note stew,” Piliouras boasts. “This has fine-dining depth and complexity of flavor.” In sports they say it isn’t boasting if you can back it up. At Nisi, the chef and his crew do just that.
All chefs work hard, but Piliouras’s attention to detail is unstinting. The cardinal virtues of Greek cuisine—freshness and simplicity—would seem to resist any urge toward greater manipulation and additional steps. But Piliouras manages to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of lassitude and fussiness. His CIA degree (‘89) and his Greek heritage may explain why.
“Part of me is the classically trained chef with the French technique,” he says. “But part of me is still that 7-year-old boy cooking alongside my yia-yia, my grandma from Sparta [Greece].” Post-CIA, the Westchester native worked in top-rated French kitchens in his home county. Then he was hired by the Livanos family to cook in their restaurants, notably as the original and long-running chef de cuisine of Molyvos in Manhattan, the first Greek restaurant to garner three stars from the New York Times.
When Piliouras, now 50, was approached by brothers Peter and Othon Mourkakos to be a partner in Nisi, he jumped. “I was ready for a shorter commute from my home in Haworth,” he says. “But what really sold me was the chance to cook what I love and create my own menu.”
Nisi opened in January with two large, handsome spaces—a lounge and a dining room (there is also a private room)—and a broad menu encompassing both tradition and inspired elaboration. [For a report on New Jersey’s Greek restaurant boom, see next page.] Nisi’s appetizer of keftedes (lamb-and-beef meatballs) comes not with a tomato-based sauce but with a sweet-and-sour apricot-garlic yogurt dip.
My table begged for more. Excellent crispy, tender, semolina-crusted fried calamari are accompanied by a toothsome Greek tartar sauce made with pickles, capers, lemon, dill, and a pinch of Turkish red Aleppo pepper. Lemon butter whisked into a balsamic-style Kalamata vinegar reduction caresses plump scallops kataifi, our favorite starter. These are whole giant Maine scallops wrapped in bresaola-like dried beef pastourma, wrapped again in the shredded phyllo dough called kataifi, and deftly deep-fried.
Alongside the chef’s inspirations, the menu offers reliable renditions of classic dips like taramosalata, tzatziki, and melintzanosalata, pan-fried graviera cheese, grilled octopus, and exemplary mini-spanakopita. Also reliable are entrées of grilled or fried seafood, lamb, steak, and baked dishes such as moussaka.
Nisi is a destination estiatorio. Foodies may be familiar with its location, the former digs of the eateries Ocean Palm and 90 Grand Grille. Nisi means island in Greek, and ocean-mist blue-gray dominates the restaurant’s vaulted redesign by Englewood-based architect Steven Lazarus.
The lounge’s glorious floral arrangement is, in essence, a Mourkakos calling card. The family, which lives in Alpine, owns a wholesale fresh-flower business in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
I found Nisi’s lounge room, with its dramatically lit bar and fewer tables, more soothing than the main dining room, where hard surfaces amplify conversation to a din. (Then again, I’m always the one requesting the quiet table in the corner.)
I encourage diners to follow the solicitous servers’ suggestion of a Greek wine—we enjoyed the crisp, fruity Megapanos Savatiano white. Servers may ask those interested in fish to follow them to Nisi’s brilliantly lit dining room display of iced sea critters du jour and learn their origins, tastes—and aliases. Mediterranean lavraki, or sea bass, is white, flaky, and mild as flounder. Tsipoura, or dorado, is soft and buttery, with fatty skin that flavors the flesh in cooking. Fagris (porgy), barbounia (mullet), and pompano are fuller in flavor. Your selection, anointed with olive oil, will be placed in a traditional wire basket called a skhara to keep the skin from charring, then grilled over red-hot pumice stones.
Fresh fish are a Nisi strength, yet they aren’t Piliouras’s knockout punch. Most master chefs delegate their desserts. Not this one, and his sweets are sensational. A devourable chocolate terrine sokofreta (chocolate bar) melds melted Valrhona chocolate, French butter, a dash of Metaxa Greek brandy, pistachios, and dried fruit, all chilled in a mold and sliced. Equally tempting is krema kataifi, an elegant cylinder layered with shredded phyllo dough, orange pastry cream, chocolate, vanilla whipped cream, and huge, perfect raspberries.
Piliouras also makes great ice cream. Flavors rotate, but you’re apt to find a baklava number, replete with chunks of almond-white chocolate baklava mixed into Greek thyme-honey-vanilla ice cream. Another winner is sokofreta caramel swirl, which is vanilla ice cream teased with muscat dessert wine from the island of Samos and imbued with chunks of the sokofreta chocolate bar.
Nisi offers a three-course lunch menu for $19, a fine value. (There is also a three-course, $30, pre-theater prix fixe pegged to the Bergen Performing Arts Center down the street.) The lunch menu offers many dinner specialties à la carte, including gilled fresh fish and a raw bar, plus a delicious burger enhanced with parsley, oregano, and a touch of mint. It’s served on a Balthazar roll (the superb bakery is just blocks away) with a side of excellent house-made pickles, coriander ketchup, and Greek fries.
Perhaps no man is an island, but John Piliouras is Nisi.