Editor’s Note: Executive chef John Piliouras left Orama in October 2015
From the moment you step into its glass-domed atrium, Orama aims to wow you. Arrive at the Edgewater restaurant before sunset and honeyed light pours in from the dome. Standing in the atrium, looking across the first-floor dining room, you are instantly struck by the panoramic view of the Hudson River and Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
If your destination is the more posh second-floor dining room, you climb the circular staircase, bringing into view the ornate chandelier suspended from the dome and a 360-degree abstract mural in aquatic blues by artist Alex J. Morales of Hoboken. Entering the white-on-white dining room, with its own sheer glass walls and panoramic vista, is like stepping onto a cloud.
For 20 years, this spot—hidden behind Mitsuwa Marketplace, the famed Japanese food-and-drink superstore—belonged to Matsushima restaurant. The building has been reinvented by Edgewater architect Mark Virgona. After two years of construction, Orama opened in December. Even before they see the view, most people will associate the name with the word panorama. There is a connection. Orama is a Greek word meaning “vision.” It is properly pronounced OR-uh-ma. Orama’s executive chef, John Piliouras, and its owners, Simeon Maximiadis and Stacey Christakos, are Americans of Greek heritage. But here’s the surprise: Orama is not a Greek restaurant.
What is it, then—apart from an impressive eyeful with a welcoming vibe and considerable creature comforts, including well-spaced tables and outdoor seating in warm weather? Orama is an ambitious restaurant. Its generally well-executed food is elevated yet easily understood and unusually wide-ranging.
Orama offers two different menus, one for each dining room. The first floor (as Orama calls it) is the more affordable. It features raw-bar selections ranging from oysters to sake-cured salmon mini-tacos with pineapple salsa ($12). Then there are charcuterie, flatbreads, salads, sliders, yakitori, and a 12-ounce, $32 sirloin for two. We tried the $12 Bacon Ménage a Trois. A twist on bacon-wrapped dates, it includes bacon-wrapped morels and bacon-wrapped shrimp among the six skewers. They were daubed with Japanese unagi sauce (a tangy-sweet soy reduction usually served on broiled eel). The bacon was dark and crisp, the sauce delicious, but the shrimp were overcooked and dry.
The first floor’s best bet is an appetizer-size portion of scallop kataifi, chef Piliouras’s greatest creation, dating to his days as executive chef of Nisi, the short-lived but terrific Greek seafood restaurant in Englewood (2009-2011). At Nisi, Piliouras wrapped ocean scallops in Greek dried-beef pastourma, then in the shredded phyllo called kataifi. Deftly fried, the scallops were split into open-faced discs with crisp kataifi jackets and served with a lemon-beurre fondue.
In retrospect, “the pastourma was a little intense for the scallop, but I didn’t want to go outside the Greek box,” Piliouras told me on the phone after my Orama visits. “Here, we have a salumi platter, and the speck [a lightly smoked prosciutto] was just perfect for the scallops.” Still served with the lemon-beurre fondue, the dish is better than ever.
Even if you’re dining upstairs, you should take in the first floor’s most stunning visual feature (especially dramatic after dark). That is its bar, topped with a quartz-based material embedded with sparkly, translucent slices of what looks like variegated agate. The slices are lit from underneath. Sit at the bar for a minute and watch the colors change. You’ll think you’ve had too much to drink. You might be right, but it’s probably the shifting hues of the concealed lights.
Piliouras, 56, a Westchester native and Syracuse University journalism and public relations graduate, worked at Pottery Barn’s corporate office before earning a CIA degree in 1989. He began cooking under the highly regarded Maxime Ribera at Maxime’s in Westchester and was the longtime chef de cuisine of Molyvos in Manhattan before opening Nisi.
“After Nisi, I didn’t want to cook just one cuisine any longer,” he said. “My heritage is Greek, but I’m not a Greek chef. So I went on a culinary journey. I found out how much I love Japanese and Thai food.” At some point, he met Maximiades and Christakos, who were looking for a chef for Orama. The three hit it off. “So they gave me a corporate credit card,” Piliouras relates, “and I started buying ingredients and cooking for people at my home in Haworth. I challenged myself to create unique recipes—delicious dishes that are innovative, but not too cute or contrived.”
To experience the full range of offerings, sit on the first floor, where (we inquired and were pleased to discover) the second floor menu is available on request. The upstairs, lovely and placid as it is, restricts you to its more expensive menu, which adds caviar and (bland) Wagyu carpaccio ($22) to its starters and offers pastas, tempura, fish, meat and more.
Some appetizers date from Piliouras’s days under mentor Ribera. I’ve never had better coquilles St. Jacques ($18) or veal sweetbreads (velvety, caressed with lemon butter and port wine syrup, $16). D’Artagnan foie gras mousse was lushly infused with Sauternes and black-truffle flecks and served with candied kumquats ($25). Seafood bisque (lobster claw, knuckle and tail meat in a base of lobster stock with dry vermouth, tomato and saffron) was exquisite, and a relative bargain at $12.
The orzo in spicy shrimp orzo ($14) is simmered with onions, garlic, tomato sauce, cream, basil and Pernod. The shrimp go in last. The flavors are creole, the effect Mardi Gras on a plate.
Entrées skew toward seafood and beef. Crispy whole sea bass is like Chinese restaurant whole fried fish but better—barely crusted and minus the gloppy sauce. The glaze is sweetened with fresh orange juice reduction.
Orama’s sashimi-grade tuna is grilled with a memorable aromatic crust of black, white, green and pink peppercorns; fennel seeds; mustard seeds; and coriander seeds. The 8-ounce portion is sliced into two hunks and plated with squid-ink spaghetti in a puttanesca sauce. It was so good it could be habit-forming, even at $32.
Filet mignon is rarely served on the bone, but it is here. The wet-aged prime beef “gains flavor from the juices and marrow that flow from the bone,” Piliouras said, accurately. At $56 for 16-ounces, it is not the costliest item. That distinction goes to the Japanese Kobe sirloin, 8 ounces for $92. A better deal is the generous, flavorful beef short ribs braised in red wine with pearl onions and three-cheese smashed potatoes, at $38.
Piliouras’ superior chocolate terrine, a signature dish from Nisi, comes as two slabs of Valrhona chocolate, each mixed with crunchy-chewy bits of dried fig, apricot, date and toasted almond. Pastry chef Krista Guiwo has introduced a satisfying flourless chocolate cake with white-chocolate mousse over milk-chocolate mousse over dark-chocolate mousse. Both desserts are worth every calorie.Click here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:American - Asian - European - Greek/Mediterranean - Pan-Asian
Price Details:First floor: Raw and cured, $12-$18; flatbreads, $12-$13; tapas and meze, $11-$32; salads, sides, chilled plates, $8-$18; desserts, $10-$12. Second floor: Appetizers and salads, $8-$27; entrées, $22-$94 (for Kobe sirloin); desserts, $10–$12; chef’s tasting menu, $150
Ambience:Swanky, serene aeire with Manhattan view
Service:Eager to please
Wine list:30 by the glass; 19 by the half bottle; 100 bottles under $100; plus a reserve list and 8 Coravin selections