When Maria Loi, owner and chef of Loi Restaurant in NYC, read my Kosher Like Me business card she grabbed me by the hand and insisted that I follow her. I slung my bag over the back of my chair before I had even taken my seat, waved to my dinner companions, who looked both amused and baffled (I could hear them thinking, “Oy, here we go again“), grabbed my I-phone for pics (I thought it was an OFF night) and allowed myself to be steered into the inner sanctum of this busy NYC restaurant kitchen. It was brightly lit, immaculate and humming with focused activity.
“Look!”, she directed me with a wide smile and a sweeping arm gesture, “I separate my stations so there is no mixing of meat and dairy. You might guess that I am kosher!” Stunned by the seeming incongruity and surprise of it all, but loving the pace of this ride, it was clear that Maria Loi had a story to tell.
Loi grew up on the Corinthian Gulf coast in Nafpaktos in a home where dairy and meat were always separated as were dishes and pans. She never gave it a thought until she came to NYC and discovered that her father was Jewish.
“He unfortunately died without knowing, or at least without telling us he knew. Maybe this is why he gave shelter to sixteen Jewish families during World War II- and his friends were almost all Jewish. I learned of my Dad’s ancestry from an Italian photographer here in New York.”
Now that she knows more about her Jewish lineage, she understands the roots of her habit of separating meat and dairy, although her restaurant is not kosher. Among the ways she identifies with her Greek and Jewish background, she honors Greek Holocaust survivors in NYC by cooking for them at the Greek Consulate on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This year and last, there were over 100 guests in attendance.
Loi’s menu is an easy one to navigate, with plenty of fish and vegetable choices and more unexpected surprises like vegetarian moussaka. She credits her great-grandmother’s recipe collections as her inspiration, especially her straightforward focus on fresh ingredients and her reluctance to fry anything.
I returned to Loi last night with one of my besties and a group of five 20- somethings, all hungry and happy to volunteer their opinions as we worked our way through almost all of the vegetarian and fish choices on the menu.
From the appetizers, we loved the cheese croquettes, a surprisingly light, baked, single bite of goat and Manouri cheeses encased in crisp crust and sitting atop a sweet dollop of fig and apricot compote.
Bring on more compote, please!
Other standouts were the oven baked beans with spinach and tomato served alongside a single, tender cipollini onion on a neat tile of feta cheese. The beans were fat, tender and perfect.
Baked eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions and smoked feta mousse disappointed a bit, as I was yearning for a sharper, saltier bite as contrast to the sweetness.
Vegetarian Moussaka was a real treat. Slow cooked, minced mushrooms replace the traditional meat filling, lending the requisite heft. The eggplant was caramelized from slow cooking alongside the sweet onions. A soft pillow of potatoes lightly whipped with Graviera cheese topped the dish.
The stars of the show here are the fresh, well prepared fish and we ordered all of those fit for kosher keepers.
The grilled Branzino was served over a bed of Horta (greens) and plump, lemony cous cous. It’s crisp skin and moist interior made it a group favorite.
Filet of Grouper was equally delicious and tasted pleasantly of the sea. Poached fingerling potatoes, Israeli couscous, grilled onion, reduced tomatoes and asparagus rounded out the dish.
Sides of lemony roasted potato spears, roasted cauliflower simmered in gently spiced tomato sauce, and wild, steamed greens saisfied our need for veggies. Barely cooked asparagus were bright and crisp and topped with a crumble of feta.
While nobody in the group imagined having room to sample Loi’s authentic, housemade, Greek sweets selection, I was delighted by a birthday surprise of “Maria’s Special Rich Greek Chocolate Flourless Cake“. Somehow we found room to savor the deep chocolatey richness and surprisingly light texture of this celebratory cake.
My unexpected birthday celebration was heightened by big laughs with close friends, delicious, deceptively simple and thoroughly Greek dishes and a few bottles of very chilled Greek Sauvignon Blanc.
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit)
Loi Restaurant is an easy walk to Lincoln Center (pre-theatre menu, $40 for 3 course and plenty to chose from if you are kosher like me) and just steps from the subway at 72/Broadway. In addition to an airy and comfortable dining room (love the fully upholstered chairs) there are three private dining rooms available for groups of 6-45 guests.
208 West 70th St. NYC
This recipe was shared by Maria Loi, chef and owner at Loi Restaurant, NYC.
- 1 Leek, all of white, half of green part, diced
- ½ bulb of fennel, diced
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- zest of 1 lemon, and juice
- 2 portions of wild salmon
- s/p to taste
- Clean the fennel and leeks by soaking in cold water with salt. Change water twice until it runs clear.
- Take your chopped leeks and fennel, and marinate in olive oil, lemon juice, and zest.
- Heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat, and lightly sauté your leek and fennel mixture, seasoning with s/p to taste, until the leeks and fennel begin to sweat and turn a little transluscent. Then set aside, and finish cooking while the salmon is grilling.
- When ready, heat a grill pan, and cook salmon on presentation side first, for 2-3 minutes over medium heat, and then flip to “skin”-less side, and cook another 2-3 minutes for medium-rare-medium doneness on your fish.
- Finish cooking the fennel/leek mixture, place on plate, serving fish on top of vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and garnish with parsley and capers.