An upscale Greek restaurant in Manhattan has to have certain attributes, and it needs to do them very well: The menu should have the expected assortment of Greek salads, dips, and appetizers, and they should all be prepared with precision, while hitting the right notes. Fish should be flown in regularly from Mediterranean waters, prepared simply, and presented whole. And the room itself should ideally be tranquil with traditional Greek colors of white and blue. Nerai, located on 54th Street between Park and Madison, perfectly fits the bill.
We dined there recently at the invitation of the restaurant and started our meal with a couple creative and very tasty cocktails, including the Pigtini (Stoli with fresh fig puréee and rosemary) and the Persephone (prosecco with St. Germain and pomegranate) accompanied by meze including spicy feta dip and hummus, which were both fresh and flavorful. Grilled langoustines were perfectly cooked and simply dressed with olive oil, certainly worthy of the expense, although they could have picked up a little more char from the grill. And individual spanakopitas were spot on and would have made for an ideal party snack. Other starters include shrimp and lobster cocktail, local oysters, fried calamari, Cretan meat balls with tomato sauce and whipped goat cheese, and an enticing-sounding duck leg confit baklava with sour cherry jus.
Entrées include Greek specialties like beef cheek pastichio with bucatini and kefalograviera cheese béchamel, duck moussaka with lentils and chanterelle fig jus, and Murray’s chicken lemonata. Langoustine uni spaghettoni is a luxurious and welcome surprise, as is squid ink linguine lobster pasta for two and a 32-ounce 28-day dry-aged bone-in ribeye for two for those in a more carnivorous mood. The fish is obviously a standout, with shipments of lavraki, tsipoura, the rarer lithrini, and even Dover sole being shipped in on a near-daily basis. My tsipoura, a Mediterranean sea bream, was light, tender, and flaky, simply seasoned with good olive oil, capers, lemon, and Greek oregano, and as excellent as can be expected at a Greek restaurant at this caliber. These guys definitely know how to cook a fish. The chicken was also excellent, tender and juicy with crispy skin and bright lemon acidity.
For dessert, don’t miss the traditional kataifi ekmek, crisp shredded phyllo topped with layers of smooth custard and whipped cream. Top it off with a glass of ouzo for good measure, and keep in mind that this is a non-tipping restaurant.
A good Greek restaurant should be predictable in all the right ways, from the ambiance to the quality of the seafood. Nerai hits all the right notes and more: It’s a tranquil, romantic spot with high-quality, simply prepared food served by a friendly and knowledgeable staff. Visit once and you might just find yourself becoming a regular.