By Suzanne Parker
MP Taverna has replaced Mezzo-Mezzo on Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria. When initials are presumed to produce recognition it’s a clue that the restaurateur has achieved celebrity chefdom. In this case, the media darling is Michael Psilakis, a winner of culinary awards, a TV personality and a cookbook author. The Astoria location is the latest addition to his restaurant empire consisting of three places in Manhattan, one in Westchester and one in Roslyn. The MP moniker seems to be reserved for restaurants outside of Manhattan.
This wood and exposed brick two-story space has been slicked up by its new occupant. The only exterior identification is the name cast in natural concrete into the parapet, doing its best to look like it’s been there since the vintage building’s completion. The previously rustic look has been updated trendily to repurposed.
The downstairs works best as a bar with food, the upstairs as a more formal restaurant. The bar has anything you could possibly want to drink from specialty cocktails, craft brews, an international wine list emphasizing Greece, to a selection of rarified single malts pricing out at $125 per shot. The glass accordion doors open onto the street making for a lively/noisy experience depending on your tolerance for hubbub.
Upstairs is a bit more relaxing. Service is first rate here — professional, accommodating and well-paced. That’s an amenity that regrettably you don’t routinely encounter at Queens eateries.
A pea soup starter, one of the specials, was not what we anticipated. Given the time of year, we were expecting a soup made from sweet young spring peas. What we got was a soup of pureed peas of indeterminate provenance, their flavor overpowered by strong olive oil and tart yogurt. The result was palatable, but just a generic Mediterranean flavor.
Apart from the pea soup, we chose from what were considered the chef’s signature dishes. The very delicious octopus salad was smokily singed on the grill while leaving the interior meat nice and springy. The addition of chick, peas white beans and herbs elevated it from the ordinary.
The bulgar (cracked wheat) salad takes advantage of a novel combination of ingredients. Olives and dates play off each other, getting a sweet and sour thing going, while the pomegranate seeds, almonds and pistachios add both flavor and textural variety.
The paella here is a tasty riff on that traditional Spanish favorite. Orzo is substituted for rice. Clams and mussels form the backbone of this dish along with a couple of beady eyed jumbo shrimp, heads and all. Crumbles of spicy lamb sausage and a generous hand with saffron enhance the flavor of this dish.
Wanting to try some of the tempting varieties of sausage without working our way through the list of appetizers, we ordered the mixed grill. It includes Cypriot lamb sausage, pork tenderloin, chicken, Greek pork sausage paired with a generous helping of hefty fries. The lamb sausage had the most flavor with a slight kick of spice. The Greek sausage was bland, and the grilled meats were overdone. The smashed fries were just over the top. The exterior crust was just too thick and greasy. Kind of too much of a good thing. What the meat lacked in juice, the fries made up for in grease.
If you’re going to overindulge, save it for dessert. Throw a party for your sweet tooth with the halvah ice cream topped brownie. The brownie itself is more like a molten chocolate cake cupcake with and ooze of melty halvah in the center. Top that with melty sesame flavored ice cream, and you have a taste of heaven.
The Bottom Line
For about the same money you would spend at any of the more upscale Astoria Greek restaurants you can have a reinvented Greek meal in stylish surroundings with great service. There’s also the celebrity chef factor, an uncommon commodity in the nabe, if you care.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
31-29 Ditmars Blvd.
Astoria, NY 11105
Price Range: Appetizers $8—12, Mains
Cuisine: Updated Greek
Setting: Stylish, bar downstairs, dining room upstairs.
Service: First-rate table service
Lunch: Monday-Friday, Noon-3pm; Dinner: Sunday–Thursday, 3pm–11pm late night menu till 1am; Friday–Saturday, 3pm–Midnight late night menu till 2am
Alcohol: Full bar
Noise level: Noisy downstairs
Handicap accessible: Yes, downstairs