A decade ago if you'd asked a group of New Yorkers what they thought of octopus, nine out of 10 would have wrinkled up their noses in distaste. But lately the brainy cephalopod has swum its way into the culinary spotlight. While your best bet for acquiring octopuses used to be limited to Greek and Japanese restaurants, modern bistros all over town are now serving it. In fact, the creature currently finds itself among the city's most popular apps.
Identified taxonomically as mollusks of the Octopoda order, octopuses (or more stiltedly, octopi) are represented by over 300 species, with a range that circles the globe. With eight paired arms (though two may be more accurately described as legs), the cephalopod has a beak for biting and eating, and an elaborate defense system that involves fast locomotion, squirted ink, and the ability to assume camouflage colors. Some live in reefs; some dwell on the ocean floor. Other random facts: they have three hearts, no internal skeleton, and a long-term memory. For millennia octopus has been a prominent foodstuff, mainly around the Mediterranean and in the Far East.
While octopus used to be a relatively inexpensive commodity, a declining catch over the last few decades has led it to be almost a luxury seafood. Servings have shrunk as a result, though the animal is not considered endangered in a majority of its habitats. Here is a handy guide to the eight-armed benthic invertebrate as found in area restaurants. We can't guarantee that it's currently on the menu at these places, so call ahead to confirm. A few examples have been included from shuttered restaurants for the purpose of amazing you with the wide variety of recipes it has figured in during the contemporary octopodic era.
Until late in the last century, octopus was rarely found on Greek menus around town, probably because of its high "Yuck!" factor. Frank Bruni, in a 2005 review, credits Periyali, a Greek restaurant in Chelsea, with popularizing the grilled animal starting in the late 80s. Perhaps it's been available in Astoria much longer, but a search of reviews from Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, and Japanese restaurants of the 70s turned up zero mentions. The classic Greek recipe involves tenderizing the cephalopod (traditionally, by striking it against a rock), boiling it, then grilling it. Afterwards, the slightly charred flesh is usually dressed with some combination of olive oil, red-wine vinegar, and oregano.
Gregory’s 26 Corner Taverna -- This obscurely located home-style Greek spot mainly coats its tentacles with oregano and lots of olive oil, and provides a side salad. 2602 23rd Ave, Queens, (718) 777-5511
Kopiaste – Situated in the shadow of the N-train tracks, this Cypriot restaurant takes the simplest and most elegant approach to the creature imaginable. 23-15 31st St, Queens, (718) 932-3220
Taverna Kyclades – This restaurant over the First Avenue stop on the L is a branch of an Astoria favorite, and now the foremost provider of classic Attic octopus in the East Village, served with grilled toasts saturated with olive oil. 228 First Ave, (212) 432-0011
Boukies – The now-defunct East Villager Boukies deliciously scattered its poached and grilled octopus with fried capers.
MP Taverna – Going against centuries of tradition, Michael Psilakis incorporates octopus into a salad with smoky black eyed peas at the Queens outpost of his chain of casual tavernas, smothering it in a thick mustard vinaigrette. 31-29 Ditmars Blvd, Queens, (718) 777-2187
PORTUGUESE AND SPANISH
The Portuguese and Spanish copped to the beast’s eight-armed splendor almost as early as the Greeks. The Portuguese, in particular, present it in the simplest context, while the Spanish often put it in tapas with potatoes, or in a tart and oily salad with pimentos, garlic, and green or black olives.
Seabra's Marisqueira – This Ironbound Portuguese seafood restaurant really gets it right: thick ropey tentacles with onions and scallions, flooded with lots and lots of olive oil, tendered in a generous serving. Hint: It tastes better sitting at the bar than in the formal dining room. 87 Madison St, Newark, NJ, (973) 465-1250
El Colmado – What goes better with octopus than spuds? At Seamus Mullen’s Gotham West outpost, the paprika-crusted arms are tossed with purple and white potatoes and piquantly dressed with a salsa verde. 600 11th Ave., Gotham West Market, (212) 582-7948
Margon – By some miracle this old-guard Cuban lunch counter still persists near Times Square, turning out a delicious pulpo salad dotted with red peppers and green olives, very much in the Spanish tradition. 136 W. 46th St., (212) 354-5013
Gato – Bobby Flay gives a single smallish octopus tentacle an unexpected twist with sour orange and bacon, though the $17 price tag might seem excessive at his Spanish-leaning pan-Mediterranean. 324 Lafayette St., (212) 334-6400
Sicilians often include octopus in a seafood salad with olives and crunchy celery, but now random modern pizzerias have jumped into the act, since the mollusk makes a nice non-carb prelude to a rather starchy meal.
Lobster House – This classic seafood palace offers an abundant octopus salad, enlivened with black and green olives, celery, and red peppers, including specimens of wildly divergent size. 1898 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island, (718) 667-0003
Nicoletta – The Wisconsin-style pizza may be mediocre, but the octopus in the seafood salad showcases Michael White’s famous affinity for seafood, along with mussels and clams in a light lemony dressing. 160 Second Ave, (212) 432-1600
Marta – Wrapping around the sinuous tentacles and providing verdant crunch, purslane joins creamy white beans in a salad unique to the world of octopusdom at Danny Meyer’s new Roman pizzeria, via chef Nick Anderer. 29 E 29th St, (212) 689-1900
Malaparte – At this slightly upscale offshoot of the beloved West Village pasta mill Malatesta, herbed octopus is treated as something to be heaped on a simple, well-dressed salad, with chicory providing a bitter kick. 753 Washington St, (212) 255-2122
Most octopus usage in France originates on the Provencal coast, where the deployment of a pesto-type sauce is a given, but our modern French chefs have not hesitated to embroider on the tradition by scooping up Italian and Greek influences.
Buvette – At Jody Williams’ Buvette, celery provides crunchy counterpoint to the squish of the cephalopod, and olives give this delicious composition a saline edge. 42 Grove St., (212) 255-3590
Le Midi – Sleeper Greenwich Village bistro Le Midi provides one of the most attractive settings for octopus imaginable: lying like railroad ties alongside potatoes, drizzled with pistou and napped with sunny tomato confit – the soul of Provence. 11 E. 13th St., (212) 255-8787
Boulud Sud – Marcona almonds, arugula, and orange segments in sherry vinaigrette share the plate with octopus at this Franco-Mediterranean DB restaurant. 20 W 64th St, (212) 595-1313
South American octopus is not only about ceviche, but about incorporating native South American ingredients like mote (hominy) and tropical staples like plantain along with Latin flourishes that emanated from Spain.
Cucharamama – This pan-South American restaurant offers octopus in a Peruvian black olive and panca pepper sauce, with some stray pozole and grape tomatoes, via chef Maricel Presilla. 233 Clinton St, Hoboken, NJ, (201) 420-1700
Ecuatoriana – Lightly poached octopod is further "cooked" in lime juice flavored with purple onions and cilantro, served as a cold citrus soup garnished with a periscope of fried plantain in this splendid ceviche. 1685 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 491-4626
When post-Soviet cooks get their hands on octopus, they generally long-boil it until the proteinaceous jelly seeps out, miring the body parts in a natural terrine, which is then sliced thin.
Troy – This strange restaurant, intended to evoke ancient Troy, Greece, and Rome, offers the kind of sliced octopus terrine you can readily find at Brighton Beach markets, composed of tentacles attractively presented in cross section. 2271 Hylan Blvd, Staten Island, (718) 667-8769
JAPANESE AND KOREAN
A small swatch of octopus on top of a lozenge of vinegared rice is part of the classic sushi set in Japanese gastronomy; so-used, it constitutes one of the most unadorned and subtly flavored uses of the beast. Japanese appreciation of octopus is probably as old as that of the Greeks.
Hasaki – At sushi specialist Hasaki, the classic Japanese octopus app also features cucumber, seaweed, and yellow daikon pickle in the lightest dressing imaginable, allowing the rubberiness to shine. 210 E 9th St, (212) 473-3327
Ajisen Ramen – Chuka idako is a red-cooked baby octopus stew popular in Japan and Hawaii, made from a recipe that probably originated in Malaysia. Find it at this otherwise mediocre ramen restaurant. 136 W 28th St, (646) 638-0888
NY Tofu House – This short-lived St. Marks Korean offered a tangle of baby octopi smeared with red chile sauce in a bibimbap lunch special.
Though squid is far more common, baby octopus is featured in a variety of dishes originating in Thailand’s Malay Peninsula, sometimes stewed with green peppercorns and garlic.
Uncle Boons – Delectably grilled, the baby mollusks at Uncle Boons come with charred lime and a spicy nam prik dipping sauce. 7 Spring St, (646) 370-6650
While previous generations of chefs have imbued octopus with a simple and predictable palette of flavors, ambitious modern ones are treating it as a blank canvas waiting for bold strokes and dramatic compositions – and the plainness of flavor and pleasant chewiness of the eight-armed wonder are their inspiration.
Meadowsweet – Polo Dobkin treats octopus like a bathing beauty in this hyper-attractive presentation flavored with chorizo, basil oil, and thin strips of glistening red pepper. 149 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-384-0673
Telepan Local – Bill Telepan and chef-de-cuisine Joel Javier have annealed the beast with red wine, garnished it with almonds and parsley, and dropped it in a puddle of tart yogurt. 329 Greenwich St, (212) 966-9255
Tuome –Thomas Chen takes a single perfect tentacle cooked golden and deposits it on a gravel of pork xo; as the dish is served, the chef pops out of the kitchen and squirts on the brown butter foam, for an unexpectedly great (and great looking) dish. 536 East 5th St, (646) 833-7811
Empire Diner – Treating octopus as an additional element of a standard Greek salad is the idea behind this app at Amanda Freitag’s nine-month-old diner, with mint and feta providing flavor highlights. 210 10th Ave, (212) 596-7523
Barchetta – Dave Pasternack takes his inspiration from the Spanish province of Galicia, charring a paprika-coated tentacle and bedding it with smoked peppers. 461 W 23rd St, (212) 255-7400
All Good Things – What could be better than octopus stew? At the now-closed Tribecan located in a market, which boasted a constantly shifting menu.