How a sophisticated and upscale Greek restaurant came to revive a burned-out Colonial in Tenafly, N.J. began when Michael Parlamis asked his wife Marguerite, “What’s for dinner?”
The longtime principal with the famous restaurant construction firm Parlamis Group, and his wife were stymied one night, years ago, as they debated going to the same ol’ same ol.’ So they decided they, and the town they lived in, were ready for a change in dining destinations!
“We were so discouraged when we realized we couldn’t find a really nice restaurant in Tenafly that we enjoyed, so my husband turned to me and said, ‘Let’s build our own!” she says.
And in 2006, after overseeing the high design and construction of more than 700 restaurants throughout the greater New York metropolitan area, the Parlamis family opened the doors to the glamorous and sophisticated Axia Taverna.
Boasting a design lauded by the New York Times for its soaring ceilings, long banquettes, spectacular glass wine rack and granite staircase, and a menu to make lovers of fine Greek food and wine weep for the Hellenic Republic, Axia Taverna married the best of both worlds in its cuisine by Chef Alex Gorant and its ambience by the Manhattan design team of Tony Chi & Associates.
In this week’s Recipe for Success Q&A, Alexander Parlamis, the son of Michael and Marguerite, discusses the restaurant—named for the concept of worthiness—which was founded because his parents wanted better dining options in their community.
Q: Axia Taverna boasts high-end design with a relaxed feel for patrons.That’s an interesting mix.
It’s a casual Greek eatery that offers fine-dining food and wines. Before opening Axia I’d done over 25 restaurants with designer Tony Chi, and I was the contractor who interpreted Tony’s plans for Axia. We utilized the footprint of the former restaurant, but Tony likes to break things up and offer a different experience or feel in a variety of segments in the restaurant.
We wanted to offer choices to diners because we know that you can have 10 different people who walk into a restaurant and if they’re asked to choose they’re favorite table, I can guarantee … it’s 10 different tables. So we’ve tried to appeal to different tastes in a number of ways. In the front room space, for example, with its stone floor, we offer a very casual dining spot, which is good for lunches. We also did something special with our bar, for the people who chose to eat there. The concept was to give it the feeling of a dining room table where someone just happened to set up a bar and start pouring drinks.
Q: I understand the wine that flows at Axia is as carefully chosen as the fine finishes and menu items.
It’s easy to author a list of French, Italian and California wines that’s very approachable for the average wine drinker. But walking them into the grapes of Greece, that’s a challenge! When most people think of Greek wine they think of something they’ve tried at a Greek restaurant. But Greek wine can actually be very well done, and it’s important to us to share this with our diners.
We carry over 250 Greek wines on a wine list of over 400 different vintages. The way we promote our Greek wine is that it’s the only wine available by the glass. We have 22 Greek wines by the glass and our bartender works with the diner to match the diner’s taste. So, the diner can say they’re looking for a Pinot Noir or a crisp, white sauvignon blanc, and we will walk them to the Greek grape that most closely matches that variety.
Our sommelier Tim Vlahopoulos is very serious about Greek wines and actually travels to Greece during the summer, during our slower season, to lead wine tours through three different wineries and to study the grapes.
Q: Executive Chef Alexander Gorant returned to his Greek heritage for inspiration. Is it true he’d never cooked Greek food before?
Alex is a very talented executive chef who had done everything from tasting menus to very high-end French, and even mass-production serving thousands. He’s 100 percent Greek in heritage, but he’d never cooked Greek before! So we sent him to Greece and he did a tour of the homeland. He was chaperoned by a good family friend and cookbook author Diane Kochilas to study and develop a menu.
Q: What differentiates your menu from others?
We do everything, even if it’s a restaurant standard, to an amazing level. Nobody needs a boring restaurant anymore! One of our most popular dish is a roasted chicken. Everybody’s got a roasted chicken, but ours is so good that we get tables of four coming in and all ordering it. It’s the way he does it, they way he has learned to prepare it with all the ingredients very common to Greece. And, most restaurants don’t finish a roasted chicken on the sauté line.
Q: What were some of the greatest challenges to your concept?
We originally opened with a small-plate concept where a party or three or four would order10 different meze plates to create a multi-course dinner. But we realized that our clientele were really coming here looking for fine dining. We initially opened without tablecloths or menu covers and went for over a year on that program. But then we decided that adding these touches gave it a much more polished feel. It seemed that for the level of cuisine we were presenting that they deserved to be highlighted better than the way we did it originally, which was on a heavy stock sheet of paper.
Q: What advice would you give to someone dreaming of starting a restaurant?
I think it’s very important to study food trends. There’s an overpopulation of Italian restaurants right now, and restaurants are trending now toward Mexican and Peruvian. Greek food has been trending for some time now, but isn’t well represented in all areas.
You need to offer people an opportunity to try something different rather than opening an eatery around the corner from another one around the corner. Broaden your horizons and travel to different regions of the world to experience their food cultures. It’s the age of the chef and the age of doing unique and exotic food.