When Ara Greek Kitchen & Bar opened in October, the restaurant’s atmosphere embraced the signature white and blue colors of the Greek Isles. The food, however, was taken one step further than spanakopita and ouzo. Corporate Chef Executive Steve Koutsoumbaris not only has more than 25 years of culinary experience, he was raised on simple, fresh Greek food that became a staple of his family’s kitchen.
“The word ‘ara’ is like an expression to me. It’s when you’re at a loss for words and you’re looking to explain something,” said Koutsoumbaris, who grew up in Astoria, the Greek capital of New York. “Being Greek was instilled in me for a long time and I learned a lot from my parents and my grandmother as far as cooking goes. I got tired of people saying Greek food is only souvlakia and moussaka so I look to add my own twist to make it different.”
With a burning passion for being in the kitchen, Koutsoumbaris decided to fan that flame at New York Restaurant School, before working in a restaurant for the next nine years as a chef de cuisine, where he honed his fine dining experience. When he worked at the gourmet store Agatha and Valentine, it was an eye opener into Italian food for the chef, which led him to open Allora in Bayside.
“Greek and Italian are very close as far as the freshness of the product, and when doing my research, I got inspired by pizza,” said Koutsoumbaris of his pizza program at Ara. “I wanted to add a dimension to Greek food and that’s what the pizza program does. It’s also something for the kids.”
In wanting to be different, Koutsoumbaris achieves that goal with his specialty pies that can’t be found anywhere else. The spanakopita pie, moussaka pie and gyro pie are all piled high with fresh ingredients. But guests can dine on a lot more than pizza. Munch on pita bread and different Greek spreads—the tzatziki is incredible—as you peruse a full menu including saganaki, a Greek take on a mozzarella stick featuring pan fried Graviera cheese with a lemon compote and thyme; beet salad, tri-color orzo with shrimp; branzino; red snapper and moussaka (layered eggplant, Greek meat sauce, béchamel, Graviera cheese).
As for cocktails, the Aguri, which is a blend of vodka, elderflower, cucumber and apple will act as a refreshing palate cleanser.
The bountiful and delicious menu at Ara is many things, but first and foremost, Koutsoumbaris wants his guests to know it is fresh.
“Greek food has come a long way because it’s so simple and healthy and fresh. My olive oil and yogurt are from Crete and we use a lot of cheese and fresh tomatoes in dishes,” said the chef. “Cheese in Greece is sharp because they have sheep and goat’s milk. I like to use it in a lot of applications as it adds a brininess but creaminess as it cooks down.”
With a mother from Crete and a father from the small Greek island of Astypalaia, Koutsoumbaris is simple when it comes down to his favorite dishes. A grilled piece of fish, steak or tomato salad are his go-tos, but his grandmother’s yemista (stuffed tomatoes and peppers) and grape leaves always stand out.
“It’s all about going out in the garden and bringing back beautiful vegetables,” he said. “I hope people get that Greek experience, feeling that hospitality side of it and enjoying fresh, delicious food saying they would love to come back again.”
While a trip to Greece should be on everyone’s wanderlust bucket list, for now let’s be happy that Chef Koutsoumbaris has shared a little slice of the isles with Commack.
Ara Greek Kitchen & Bar, 2 Henry St., Commack. To make a reservation, call 631-360-8336 or visit www.arakitchen.com.