James Mallios, a longtime attorney who left law for the restaurant industry, teamed up with Nicola Kotsoni and Steve Tzolis of Il Cantinori and Periyali, to open Amali last fall. In the space formerly occupied by Kotsoni and Tzolis's Persephone, Amali is Greek in name and style but don't expect just another Upper East Side restaurant serving moussaka and the like. Instead, Mallios and executive chef Junior Borges?who was on the opening team but ascended to executive chef this May?take a Mediterranean approach to the restaurant and its bold wine list, in that Mallios argues that freshness and sustainability themselves are broadly Mediterranean ideals. (And UNESCO agrees.) Eater recently chatted with Mallios to talk about the restaurant's approach to sustainability and its first year in business.
You opened mid-November last year?
James Mallios, partner and GM: Yeah, we opened November 17 for friends and family. The register started ringing the 25th.
How'd you get hooked up with Nicola Kotsoni and Steve Tzolis on this project?
The law firm I worked at for the lion's share of my legal career?Liddle and Robinson?the principal partner is a friend of Steve and Nicola's. He was a customer at Il Cantinori for years. When I was at Resto I was thinking I wanted to open my own place and I happened to have dinner with Jeff and he said, "I have these friends, you should talk to them, I vacation with them in Greece and I think you would hit it off." And that's how to introduction was made.
When did you start thinking about opening your own place?
It was the summer of 2010.
What was the original concept?
I pitched Steve and Nicola on a restaurant based on one in Mykonos that I'd been at, which was Greek in its aesthetic and Mediterranean insofar as I see "farm-to-table" as a very Mediterranean concept. It did not serve spinach pie, did not serve moussaka, but it was a vegetable-driven restaurant. They didn't have any refrigeration and when the pork chops were finished the pork chops were finished?there was no apology for it. I pitched them on this [concept] and they said, "Oh, it sounds good. Why don't you work with us for a year and if we like each other, then we can maybe do something together." And they had actually been to that exact same restaurant. So that was sort of the genesis of the idea.
How did the opening go? Any delays?
I think the thing that was difficult for construction was, regrettably, that the fire at Il Cantinori happened right as we were coming to conclusion here. So we lost a lot of the crew, which had to be diverted to try to get that restaurant up and running. I think that Cantinori was the priority to a large degree, correctly, because a lot of people there were on staff, it was an already-established restaurant, and you know, you have to do that first. So if we open up three weeks later because of it, that's life in the big city as my father likes to say.
And that did, in fact, delay opening?
It did, for a couple of weeks. I think we would've been open in October had that not occurred. And also it forced me to divert my attention to becoming even more of a general contractor than anyone who is opening a restaurant should have to be. I had to wear that hat a little bit more than what at that time was probably my preference.
Once the doors opened, what was the initial customer reaction like?
Well, first you had Persephone regulars and people who, if they saw "Greek," expected a style of food that has become synonymous with Greek food in the United States, that taverna style. [But] we rely on an aesthetic that is shared by Italy, Greece, Spain, that whole Mediterranean area?it's a dining heritage that is rooted in an aesthetic and a concept of sustainability that is not "pan-Mediterranean," and it is not an amalgamation of "greatest hits" dishes from different parts of the Mediterranean. It's a way of looking at food and it's a way of looking at design and wine.
So initially with some of those customers, translating that into a soundbite that they would understand was challenging. Especially given that the neighborhood is seen as looking for simpler, more straightforward food as opposed to parts of the Village or Brooklyn. They were expecting either a slavishly Greek, Ottoman-style restaurant or they were expecting a Mediterranean greatest hits dishes place, neither of which we are. But we knew that the clientele existed that the restaurant was designed for?you want to design a restaurant for as many people as possible, but it was designed for people who had a desire for that sustainable aesthetic.
Do you think you've been able to attract that clientele, that had that desire?
Yes, and I think that Junior's food has a lot to do with that. Since his ascension to executive chef, within about five months that curve really started sloping up in terms of attendance and diners. Also I think that his creativity was what helped attract critical attention, whereas before the restaurant might have been brushed off as [just] an Upper East Side Mediterranean restaurant, when he started barbecuing stuff outside, I think people said like, "Hey, maybe this isn't the same pasta joint that exists on every street corner." And then they started to look at the pedigree, and the style of food that he did, and saw that we're doing things that were different and were innovative, then it really started to snowball.
Has the menu or the restaurant itself changed in any other ways?
Any restaurant that doesn't evolve to its neighborhood is ultimately doomed to not work out, I believe. Our fundamental categories never changed, but one big thing that changed was the way we wrote the menu to appeal to the dining base in this neighborhood. I firmly believe that if you're not communicating to your diners it's the restaurant's fault, not the diners' fault. On the menu now, things are laid out much more clearly, because we realized that we needed to take the extra step to lay it out that way. Same with the wine list: we really had to break down subcategories so people could see, we had to write down which ones are vins naturels, which are organic, which are biodynamic, from what regions.
What we did also with a lot of the food is we took 75, 80 percent of the menu and said, you know, let's make this very approachable and straightforward and let's have our more avant-garde stuff live in just 20 percent. And the menu's gotten smaller and it changes more frequently because our kitchen is very small. It's tiny. Another thing we started doing more is going to the markets more frequently, ourselves. We've segued over to buying almost exclusively from either Farmer's Web or going to the New Fulton Fish Market or a fisherman partner that we've developed a relationship with.
Any big plans for the next year?
Yes, of course. This goes back to having integrity and doing your own thing. Basically we'll be putting in a tasting room upstairs that will be different than what anyone else is doing because it's going to be interactive. I think it's pretty cool.
It's basically going to be a chef's table in which the diners will interact with the chef prior to the meal. So it's not just, "Oh, come here, it's $135, here's your menu, whatever, I'm great, deal with it. It's my genius that you're consuming and you're so lucky to even pay me to do it." This will be diner interactive via social media, which I think is pretty cool.
We're also going to be using that outdoor space in the spring as well, in addition to that barbacoa series that we did in the summer. We're thinking of ways to use that outdoor space again, much to the absolute dismay of the tenants of the adjoining buildings. I may have to throw on my attorney hat one more time.
What else? We're putting some work into our brunch and bar programs. We brought on a new beverage director, so I'm excited about that.
From the last year, what are you the most proud of?
My business partners have been around a long time. Within the industry their reputation is sterling. I'm most proud that we've done right by the faith they put in us with this restaurant. I'm also proud of the fact that Junior stuck to his food, that we stuck to the sustainability aesthetics that we set out with, and we stayed with it the whole time in this neighborhood. I'm most proud that you can have a value system and stick to it and have people respond to it. I have some personal pride in the wine list but it's eclipsed by being proud of doing right by my partners and by being proud of Junior's food.
Does it feel like a year?
It does not. It blew by. In the last year I had a kid, a restaurant, and I moved. It was like a trifecta of a bad business plan. Like if you wrote that plan out, it's the dumbest. To that end it went by quickly, and honestly, I really do have the good fortune to work with the most underestimated asset in the restaurant business: the people you work with. They make coming to work fun. This is a fun staff.
· All Coverage of Amali [~ENY~]