“The first time I deboned a whole fish at the table,” our server told us as she expertly passed her sharp knife along the backbone of a steaming grilled gilt head bream ($32), “I popped the head off and flipped it right into the poor customer’s lap!” We both laughed. I’ll admit that I also watched her hands a little nervously as she continued, “But the owners didn’t fire me. They just taught me better and made me practice, and that was many years ago. Now they are like family,” she explained, as she finished by deftly sliding a glistening and totally boneless filet onto the plate.

That waitstaff should feel like members of the Emilitsa clan comes as no surprise, given that the team behind the Congress Street restaurant is an actual family. The Greek-American Regas brothers, Demos and John, respectively the former chef and the general manager, ran the restaurant as a double act since it opened in 2008, with Demos in the kitchen and John overseeing the business. Then in mid-2015, Niko Regas took over the kitchen, replacing his father as executive chef.

It’s a transition that was slow in coming – Niko trained at restaurants in York and in Minneapolis, including a stint at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Chambers Kitchen, but started out at the very bottom when he came to Emilitsa. “I wanted to prove myself to the staff and to me, so I started in the dish pit. Then I moved up,” he said.

Today, as executive chef, he is continuing his measured approach, introducing new menu items and preparations slowly – partly because, as he told me, Emilitsa’s regulars grow attached to their favorites, and partly because he genuinely loves the restaurant’s traditional Greek fare and the cuisine’s emphasis on great ingredients and strong culinary skills.

Take as an example the fantastic dal lentil spread ($8), served as a complimentary starter and also available a la carte. The smooth lentil puree is seasoned with bay leaves and olive oil. Pretty simple. But when raw, diagonally sliced sweet Vidalia onion slivers are added to it, the dish sparks to life with an electric pop. According to Niko Regas, much of this flavor is due to a precision slicing technique: “If you break the thin skin between all the layers, that’s where all the flavor is. It really makes the dish.”

We were also wowed by the deceptively simple sheep’s milk cheese and fig appetizer ($13). Salty kefalograviera cheese and balsamic-poached Kimi figs are the two co-stars of this dish. Lightly battered and pan-fried until a crunchy brown crust forms, the cheese is paired with figs that are so sticky and sugary, they taste almost candied. Kimis are no normal figs – they are an ultra-sweet variety that come from the region of Greece where Niko Regas’s grandmother Emilitsa, the restaurant’s namesake, was raised.

As we ate, we saw general manager John Regas pass a dozen times from the kitchen into the yellow-toned, softly lit dining room and back past the open-air wine rack loaded with all-Greek bottles – like the crisp, if one-note, Domaine Spiropoulos Moschofilero ($40) we drank with dinner.

On one of his trips, John Regas stopped to chat with a neighboring table who, just like us, were sharing the lamb loin chops ($33). The chops (sourced from Australia) are dry-rubbed with Greek mountain herbs like rosemary, oregano and thyme, then marked on the grill and brought up to serving temperature. We found ours just a touch underdone, but were impressed with the harmony of flavors linking the beautifully singed, aromatic herbs and the juicy lamb. As John Regas left their table, our neighbor remarked, “I’m glad I went to the gym earlier. Worth it…but I think I should probably go again tomorrow.”

Blame the sides for part of the dangerously wonderful caloric bargain this plate forces you to make: a potato-parsnip mash with feta and chunky green onion, and barely wilted young spinach, slick with lemon juice and olive oil. The cheesy mash is so irresistible that, when Niko Regas tried switching it out for a different accompaniment, there was an absolute uproar from repeat customers. “People actually walked out when it wasn’t there,” he said.

Not everything on the menu at Emilitsa is compelling enough to prompt such a protest. We found the classic Greek rice pudding ($7), a custard, cream and cinnamon dessert that requires laborious stirring, to be just a little undercooked and chalky. Similarly, the braised rabbit appetizer ($15), a rolled phyllo cylinder stuffed with kalamata olives, feta, tomato and tidbits of wild-tasting rabbit, suffered from over-saucing with a sharp grainy mustard and beer reduction. But on the strength of the flaky pastry parcels, it remained an enjoyable enough take on a Greek meat strudel.

Fava spread

One of the most impressive testaments to Niko Regas’s competence is that even the weaker dishes at Emilitsa are still pretty good. When we discussed the evolution of Emilitsa – of how a restaurant so rooted in Greek tradition changes when a son takes over a kitchen from his father – Niko Regas said that, when you work with family, change requires a lot of negotiation; it’s a slow process. None of that has stopped him from making plans to reinvent classics with new flavors that appeal to a younger crowd than Emilitsa’s older-skewing patrons. “I can’t wait for the new season. I’m working out a soft shell crab dish that will be incredible,” he said, adding, “I just want to play with flavors and still do ‘real’ Greek food.” Just as working his way up from Emilitsa’s dish pit was about proving his basic kitchen skills, Niko Regas’s turn at the helm has validated him again: this time as a gifted executive chef who knows his classics. What he does next with his family’s confidence and support will be very exciting to see.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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