By Penelope Karageorge
Stix Mediterranean Grill, the brilliant, high-concept restaurant and brainchild of Stathis Antonakopoulos, celebrated its one-year anniversary on December 1. For New Yorkers, it has become an important part of our dining and partying repertoire. If you haven’t been to the East 23rd Street restaurant yet (and I urge a visit) you have probably sampled Stix fare at one of the many receptions the restaurant has catered, including for the New York Greek Film Festival and Greek Fashion Show. Stix takes shish kebab, a Greek food classic, to a whole new level. The kebabs are small, intensely flavorful, and come in a toothsome variety. Tuna. Pork. Steak. Ground lamb. Chicken. Shrimp. Vegetable. The restaurant presents high-quality, low prices, and casual dining, plus healthy food, using organic products whenever possible.
“The idea of Stix came from having a cheeseburger at Shake Shack,” says Antonakopoulos. “I saw that taking America’s favorite foods, the hamburger and the milkshake, and giving it a good brand led to enormous success. As a Greek, I said to myself, what can I do to be so creative and bring a project to that level. I realized that I could equate Greek souvlaki with the American burger. But I didn’t want to have only an ethnic identity of calling it souvlaki. I wanted to Americanize it, to bring it to the masses as a healthy alternative and as an approachable product like the burger. So I thought about it and Stix was the result. Food on a stick. I put my team together and went to work.”
Stix capitalizes on another Greek dining concept, the pleasure of sharing a variety of dishes to create a convivial experience that sates our palates and entertains them. Stix encourages sharing, mixing, and matching, One could order one Stix for a snack or a quick lunch. Or enjoy “Stix Plus,” two sticks served with chopped Greek salad, roasted potatoes, tzatziki, and pita bread. For dining with friends, there’s the option of the “Platter for Sharing,” including a “Best Of” combo featuring two chicken, two steak, two pork plus fries, tzatziki, and pita bread.
Stix offers other Greek favorites, including flavorful meatballs, the kind your grandmother made, spinach pies, and fresh salads with their own spritely flavor combos. For instance, the Farmers Blue teams organic kale, baby spinach, roasted beets, dry figs, blue cheese, hazelnuts, and croutons in a lime vinaigrette.
A recent lunch included exceptional Greek fries, cooked in olive oil, with feta cheese and oregano. They were crisp, fresh, and delicious. I enjoyed them along with a shrimp, a chicken, and a vegetarian Stix. The vegetables, including zucchini, tomato, mushroom and pepper, were roasted to a turn but not overdone, seasoned with olive oil lemon and oregano. A side of kale, currently the “in” vegetable, proved a treat. This healthful food never tasted so good. Organic kale was pan seared with sesame seeds and a vinaigrette glaze. The seeds offered both flavor and a wonderful texture to the kale.
As for dessert, the memory of Kadaife (kataifi) makes me want to race down to Stix and have this voluptuary’s treat all over again. The Kadaife combines layers of almond paste with roasted hazel nuts, the Kadaife shaped into a bird’s nest and sprinkled with honey and rosewater. New York magazine called it the “Outstanding Dessert of the Summer.” Every bite was delicious.
Antonakopoulos, 36, radiates warmth and geniality. Greek hospitality is at the core of his restaurant philosophy. Born in Athens, he grew up in the restaurant business. His family had a hotel in Likotoria, with a 300-seat restaurant run by his grandmother. “So the fundamentals of cooking and managing a restaurant came from her.” Coming to the United States, he graduated from Baruch College and “studied for my master’s but didn’t complete it because I was always in love with the idea of opening a restaurant.” He further learned the ABCs of a tough business at the helm of the Kellari Hospitality Group.
Antonakopoulos spent a year “to develop the Stix concept and play with it. We did a lot of recipes and we did a lot of cooking. Most of the recipes are my own from my grandmother.” He expected the restaurant to be popular primarily with 18-to-35 year-olds but “we have diners from 18 to 95. Food shouldn’t have an age.” Stix has won a reputation for catering receptions. “No event is too big or small. We have catered for 500 or 10, anywhere in the tristate area. I love to throw parties, so it’s a no-brainer.”
A second Stix is in the planning stage “in Midtown Manhattan. “We’ve had a lot of offers, a lot of people talking to us, and we’re very excited. My goal is to expand the restaurant and make a franchise out of it.”
A Jersey City resident, he is married to a Greek-American from Kansas, an environmental scientist. “It’s good to have a balance in your life, having different lines of work.” He tries to go to Greece once a year and believes the current economic crisis in Greece is a “mentality issue. People have forgotten how to move forward. So the crisis is not the crisis of one person or one politician or one system. It’s a crisis of all of us – of Hellenism. A very good friend of mine – he’s from India – he said to me that if somebody’s hungry, you have to stop feeding him fish. Teach him how to fish. We have to be productive.”
According to Antonakopoulos, young entrepreneurs like him are starting to make a difference. “People are sick of the current situation. They’re ready to try something different. I see change coming at all levels. I see small companies coming to New York and being active. A guy came from Kalamata and brought me some jams made out of tomatoes and olives that were delicious and unique. His dream is to sell it in every supermarket in America. I love this kind of initiative. I see the changes. I see the transformation. I see Greek wines becoming better and better. I see great products. There’s a new beer called Blue Island. It’s excellent. We had to hit rock bottom but now we’re coming up. It’s up to us. We don’t need anyone else, only ourselves, our power and will to pass the limitations that some unfortunate political decisions put on Greece.
“As for myself, having a restaurant is a whole different kind of madness. Having a restaurant in New York City is so hard, but I love it. It’s what I love to do. It was always a dream, and here we are today.”
Stix Mediterranean Grill
112 East 23rd Street (212) 673-6666