Island-Specific Cuisine at Molyvos

The year 2014 ushered in a new era for Molyvos, a stalwart on New York’s Greek food scene since its debut in 1997. With the departure of founding chef/partner Jim Botsacos, one of the stars of Greek food in the United States, the restaurant in January introduced another Hellenic culinary artist, and one with a well-honed specialty in regional Greek cuisine: Diane Kochilas, collaborating chef. She and new Executive Chef Carlos Carreto have been revising Molyvos’ menu to feature more rustic country cooking with unique, regional ingredients from the many villages and islands of Greece.

An accomplished award-winning cookbook author, chef and host of Greece’s most popular cooking show, “Ti tha fame simera, Mama?” (“What will we eat today, Mom?”), Kochilas divides her time between Greece and New York. Her recipes have been featured in the Food & Wine, The New York Times, and other outlets, and she has developed menus at other Greek restaurants in North America, including Axia (on our list of 50 Best Restaurants on the East Coast). She spends between a week to ten days at Molyvos each month, and with Carreto has created more than 40 new dishes inspired by Greece’s many and varied regions, from Kochilas’ ancestral northern Aegean island of Ikaria to the mountains of northern Greece, to the southernmost island of Crete.

“The idea is that having this ability to go back and forth (between Greece and the U.S.) gives us the opportunity to explore ingredients that other restaurants may not be able to access, regional ingredients,” Kochilas said. “So we’re much closer to Greece, in a way, because of this collaboration.”

As an example, the two created a version of fish soup, a Greek staple dish, styled according to the Northern Aegean islands of Lesbos, home to the town of Molyvos for which the restaurant is named, and Ikaria. (The island made headlines last year for having a high number of healthy, active residents approaching or surpassing 100 years old.) Instead of the usual rice filler, the Northern Aegean version uses trahana, which Kochilas describes as a hard, sun-dried grain product made by combining cracked wheat or flour with buttermilk or yogurt (for “sour” trahana) or whole milk (for “sweet”). And Molyvos is so authentic, it makes its own trahana in-house, said Kochilas.

“I think that’s very unique. I’ve never seen that anywhere in the United States; it’s real trahana, they do it the exact same way,” she said.

The inspiration has been described as “hyper-local,” that is, exploring many individual regions of Greece to enhance the menu. Cheese is a food that lends itself particularly well to this approach.

“We’re basically trying to bring regionalities to every aspect of the menu, and the cheeses are maybe the most visible part of that, because they do come from specific places,” said Kochilas. “We have three cheeses on the menu now: one is a manouri from northern Greece, one is a kasseri, and the other is the kalathaki Lemnou.”

Having recently unearthed cheeses from the islands Andros and Crete, and the region of Roumeli, she calls cheese “one of the unsung heroes” of Greek cuisine.

“There’s such a variety of cheeses in Greece, so many different regional cheeses, and very few of them are known to a wider audience. Oftentimes they’re not known outside their region. It’s great to be able to start doing that and bring them to NY,” she said.

The new menu features an Ikarian Salad, made with a base of arugula and sweet potato. It is garnished with grilled manouri and pine nuts for a “Molyvos twist,” Kochilas said, to appeal to an American audience. But the inspiration still comes from the region.

“Sweet potato for a very long time has been a staple food on the island,” she said.

One of the bestselling new menu items is the Longevity Wild Greens Pie, a hortopita (greens encased in fillo and baked) from Ikaria, the “longevity island,” containing about 15 different greens, herbs, and vegetables. Another is Anginares a la Polita (Prawns and Artichokes a la Polita), braised artichokes with leeks, fennel, carrot and dill.

“It’s a very traditional dish, but we serve that with pan-seared wild prawns and we do that in a saffron lobster lemon sauce,” said Kochilas.

She has nothing but praise for Carreto and the experience of working with him in the Molyvos kitchen. “I think we work really, really well together. The level of technique in the restaurant kitchen at Molyvos is definitely far superior to anything I’ve ever seen or anyone I’ve ever worked with in a Greek restaurant. Chef Carlos has an amazing, very elegant touch with all the food he plates. It’s really beautiful.”

Kochilas created another dish, Octopus Stifado Ravioli, by turning the traditional octopus stew with short pasta inside out. “The octopus stew is on the inside, and that’s served with black olives and a cipollini tomato sauce, which is really delicious,” she said.

Several vegan dishes debuted on the menu during Lent, and Kochilas said they intend to add a rotating Lenten section.

“We will be tapping into more unusual ingredients, more regional ingredients and dishes, seasonal stuff, that relates also to what’s going on in Greece in a particular season,” she said. “You’re there, you’re in the place where the food originated, and then it kind of gets into your bones, and you bring it to New York and you introduce it here.”

Of course, the core of Molyvos’ menu will not change. The grilled fish, moussaka, yiouvetsi – dishes that have earned the restaurant its following – aren’t going anywhere.